By Patrick Winderl/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
The Little Shell Indian Tribe has asked Hill County for its support in an effort to have Congress pass legislation recognizing the tribe.
Tribal Chairman Jon Sinclair and council member Ed Lavenger met with the Hill County Commission on Thursday and asked the commission to pass a resolution urging Congress to act. The commission will hold a public hearing on the matter.
The Little Shell, a landless tribe consisting of more than 4,000 Chippewa Indians, has sought federal recognition for more than 20 years. Historically, American Indian tribes have been granted federal recognition through treaties, legislation or administrative decisions.
The Little Shell Tribe has pursued the administrative avenue, but believes recognition will come more quickly through the legislative process, Sinclair said.
Federal recognition means tribes are considered sovereign nations, and enables native governments to establish their own laws and policies. In addition, federally recognized tribes are eligible for federal benefits that include loans and grants for use in developing and establishing tribal services and programs.
For the Little Shell, it would also mean the tribe could access more than $2 million held in trust by the federal government, Sinclair said.
"Health care, training, college. One of the biggest benefits is that it will bring federal dollars into the state, which is one reason why we're getting the level of support that we are," he said.
Securing land for the Little Shell Tribe is not a key goal of the recognition effort, Sinclair said.
"I do not think it would be in our best interest to have a centralized location," he said. "It's not our main focus, but if the federal government came to us and offered us some trust land, we would certainly take it."
The struggle by the Little Shell to gain federal recognition through the administrative process is two decades old. In 1984, the tribe petitioned the Branch of Acknowledgment and Recognition of the U.S. Department of the Interior. After a series of extensions, the department issued a proposed finding 16 years later. The preliminary finding supported the tribe's petition, but also said the tribe needed to implement some changes before the department would offer final approval.
To be recognized, a tribe must meet a number of criteria, including proof that its membership has existed as a distinct community - a difficult task for a landless tribe, Sinclair said.
"Not being recognized, we were kind of scattered," he said. "Our people have become urbanized. You go where the jobs are, and that's what our people have done, and it's hard to keep a real sense of community when you're scattered like that."
Some of the changes the tribe has implemented to comply with the department's finding have included revamping its government and holding regularly scheduled meetings, Sinclair added.
Though most tribes seek recognition through the administrative process, a few try an act of Congress.
"Even if we do meet (the administrative) criteria, it's still a long process - likely another five years. With the legislative process, we're hoping for under two years," Sinclair said.
The Little Shell Tribe has met with representatives of Montana's congressional delegation, and is rallying support from local governments, he added.
Hill County is the second county the tribe has approached about passing a resolution urging Congress to recognize the Little Shell Tribe.
Last month, officials in Cascade County passed a similar resolution, Commissioner Peggy Beltrone said this morning.
Little Shell tribal officials also plan to visit Glacier, Fergus and Blaine counties, Sinclair said.
"Our greatest population are in those counties, though not so much in Fergus," Sinclair said. "We chose Fergus County for its historical nature for us. It's called the homeland for the Little Shell."
Sinclair said the federal government historically recognized the tribe, including with treaties signed in 1851 and 1863.
"We were also acknowledged by the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act. At that point (Congress) had actually allocated land, but couldn't get an appropriation. It was just swept under the carpet, and we've been without land since then," Sinclair said.