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‘We are building a country now': Little Shell celebrates federal recognition

January 25, 2020
In The News

For decades, members of the Little Shell Chippewa Tribe called the day they would get federal recognition “the day that never comes.”

Not anymore.

“The day that never comes finally got here,” said Clancy Sivertsen, vice chairman of the Little Shell Tribal Council. On Dec. 20, 2019, the Little Shell gained federal recognition, with the promise of land for a reservation and access to the same status and federal benefits that the other 573 federally recognized American Indian tribes enjoy. On Saturday, it was time to celebrate.

“We are building a country now,” Mike La Fountain, chair of the Little Shell Cultural Committee, told more than 100 guests who squeezed into the tribe’s event center for a noon pipe ceremony, “ … so please be patient.”

Patience has been a necessity for the Little Shell Chippewa. In 1892, their leader, Chief Little Shell, was among the Chippewa living in what is today northern North Dakota and Minnesota, when a federal commission sought to negotiate the release of 9.5 million acres of land for $1 million.

“The federal government wanted to buy all that land around at 10 cents an acre,” Sivertsen said, “and Chief Little Shell said ‘No, we hunt on this land, we live here, and I'm not selling it for 10 cents an acre.’” But while he was away hunting, an agreement was reached with other Chippewa chiefs and federally appointed tribal negotiators, and Little Shell’s band of Chippewa lost their land and official standing.

In the decades that followed, even as they dispersed across Montana and beyond, the Little Shell clung to their culture — and the dream of official status.

“Recognition was always our No. 1 issue,” said former Tribal Council member Darrel Koke Rummel. They had been working on it, she said, “since my great-grandparents were involved.”

In the 1930s and '40s, the Little Shell repeatedly petitioned the federal government for recognition. In 1978, they submitted another petition to the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, where it languished for nearly four decades. They submitted tens of thousands of pages’ worth of records to back up their claim, but none of these efforts succeeded.

Meanwhile, the Little Shell made progress on other fronts. The state of Montana recognized the tribe in 2000, and in 2007 the first federal recognition bill was introduced in Congress.

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U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte presented Gray, the tribal chairman, with a copy of the Act signed by Trump. U.S. Sen. Jon Tester sent a video message congratulating the accomplishment. Sen. Steve Daines was flying into Great Falls and was due to speak later in the evening.

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