MATTHEW BROWN Associated Press Writer BILLINGS
The members of Montana’s Congresssional delegation are focusing on legislation to recognize a landless Montana tribe after the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs declined a 31-year-old request for federal recognition. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., sponsored legislation in July to recognize the Little Shell Tribe, and Montana’s Democratic U.S. Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester sponsored similar legislation in the Senate Tuesday after the bureau announced it would deny the Tribe’s request. "It kind of hurts, naturally, but it's not the end of the line," said Little Shell elder Roger Salois, 72, after learning of the government's denial. "It's really hard to describe a feeling like this," Salois added. "You have your community and your place to go. We don't have that. But we're still together, and we're still Little Shell." The three-decade delay in answering the tribe's application was chalked up in part to "departures from precedent" a reference to the Little Shell's scattered membership and its history of intermarriage with non-Indians and members of other tribes. Critics, including Tester, blamed the delay on the "broken" Bureaucracy that oversees Indian recognition requests. “Today’s decision was wrong for a tribe that’s been a part of Montana for many years,” Tester said Tuesday. “The Little Shell Tribe has worked hard to be recognized by the federal government.” “Although this decision is disappointing, it’s hardly surprising from a federal agency that’s procrastinated for more than 30 years,” Rehberg said. “This decision makes it all the more important to pass my legislation which would circumvent this red-tape once and for all and secure the Little Shell the recognition they have had in Montana for almost a decade.” The Little Shell were recognized by the Montana government in 2000. Baucus, who along with Rehberg and Tester has previously tried to get legislation recognizing the Tribe through Congress, said the members of the delegations will continue to push for recognition of the tribe. “The Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians have patiently waited for formal recognition from the federal government for more than a century,” said Baucus. “I do not agree with today’s decision from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, but this is not the end to the Little Shell’s fight. “As Montanans and Americans, we recognize their history and heritage in our state, and I support them,” Baucus added. Federal recognition would bring housing grants and other assistance to the Tribe's 4,300 members, who are spread across Montana and neighboring states and provinces. Members of the Tribe are candid about their mixed ancestry: Many also call themselves Metis, a Canadian people with European and Native American roots. But while their lineage is mixed, they say their identity is not. "They've got their rules, and you've got to fit into the slot. But we know who we are," Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians Chairman John Sinclair said. "Why didn't they just tell us 'no' 30 years ago?" Sinclair added. Nedra Darling of the Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs said officials had to make their decision based on a strict set of criteria that allowed little flexibility. "That's what Congress gave us. Those are the regulations they set," she said. The agency's 242-page rejection decision said the Little Shell had failed to show enough "cohesion" during the early 1900s, after many of the tribe's members had been uprooted and were wandering northern Montana and southern Canada. Members of the group who ended up in Montana lived primarily in "already existing, largely multiethnic settlements," the decision stated. "In none of these multiethnic settlements did the petitioner's ancestors constitute a majority or even a significant percentage of the population," it said. The Tribe has not had a place of its own since the late 1860s, when Chief Little Shell and his band were excluded from a federal treaty signed with related tribes. The decision Tuesday acknowledged 89 percent of the Little Shell can trace their lineage to the Pembina Band of Chippewa Indians. Chief Little Shell's descendants were later forced into Canada, where some married into communities of French-Canadian fur trappers. That influence can be seen today in the tribal song, a fiddle jig. The Tribe later migrated back south into Montana, with many settling in an impoverished area of Great Falls known as Hill 57. Salois and other tribal elders say residents of Hill 57 often scavenged for scrap metal to survive. They were rejected by the white community, even as they had no place on the reservations of established tribes. Members of the Tribe also scattered through the remote towns along northern Montana's Hi-Line, a 400 mile stretch following U.S. Highway 2 and the former Great Northern Railway. Despite the geographic hurdle, Salois insisted the Tribe's members retain strong connections. "They might go somewhere, but they're still family. It's the same doggone way," he said. "Just because we're not on a reservation doesn't mean we're not Indians." The petition rejected Tuesday was filed in 1978 after several earlier attempts fell short. Montana’s recognition nine years ago allowed the Little Shell to get grants for tobacco-use prevention and economic development. The tobacco grants were recently suspended because the Tribe was not properly accounting for the money. Havre Daily News reporter Tim Leeds contributed to this story.