MATTHEW BROWN Associated Press BILLINGS
The Bureau of Indian Affairs has delayed for another 60 days its long-stalled decision over whether to grant federal recognition to a landless Montana tribe. The roughly 4,300 members of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians are officially recognized by the state of Montana but have been unsuccessful in their decades-long fight for federal acknowledgment. The latest delay, announced Monday, was needed to continue a legal review of the tribe's case, according to a letter from Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs George Skibine. He wrote that the case "contemplated a number of departures from precedent" an allusion to gaps in the Little Shell's documented history and frequent intermarriage between members and outsiders. Little Shell Chairman John Sinclair said the delay was disappointing but not surprising given the federal government's rigid recognition process. "We have a bureaucratic system where we're kind of a square peg for their round hole," Sinclair said. "We're just hoping for a positive finding at the end." The Little Shell's ancestors migrated to the Northern Plains in the 1700s. They were forced to leave in the 1860s after Chief Little Shell and his band were excluded from a federal treaty signed with related tribes. Its members scattered to Montana and surrounding states and provinces. In 1978, tribal leaders filed a formal recognition petition with the federal government and in 2000 the government announced it was leaning toward recognition. After years of delay, Skibine in January set a Monday deadline for the agency to make a decision. When that time expired, he set a Sept. 25 deadline. BIA spokeswoman Nedra Darling said there was no limit on such extensions. Federal recognition would make the Little Shell eligible for health, housing and other benefits.