BILLINGS — Opposing factions within Montana's landless Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians have agreed in principle to tribal court proceedings aimed at resolving their differences.
Representatives of the two sides said Monday that details still were being worked through an intermediary, James Steele Jr., chairman of the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council.
The 4,300-member tribe last year split into two groups — each with an elected council — after disagreeing on the legitimacy of prior elections. Leaders of the opposing groups said in recent interviews that an end to the dispute was crucial to keeping the Little Shell intact.
The tribe is recognized by the state of Montana but not the federal government, which last year turned down the Little Shell's 31-year petition for acknowledgment.
The tribe's members trace their ancestry to the Pembina Band of Chippewa Indians, who in the 1860s were under the leadership of Chief Little Shell when they were offered an unfair land deal that resulted in the band leaving North Dakota.
They have since struggled to stay together through more than a century of poverty and dislocation, and are now scattered across the Northern Plains and central Canada.
John Sinclair, of Havre, is president of the original tribal council, while John Gilbert is chairman of a rival council elected in March and based in Great Falls.
"This has gone on too long," Sinclair said. "If I allow a group to come in and overthrow the government the tribe would be in chaos forever. We need a court to decide."
Gilbert said his council has suggested the dispute be heard by a three-judge panel composed of members from other Montana tribes.
"It's time to bring this thing to an end and this is the only source we know," Gilbert said. "Right now the state of Montana has suspended doing business with either one of us, and that's a bad deal."
Since last year, the tribe has lost $617,000 in potential stimulus money that was to be funneled to the tribe through the state. State officials cited problems with the Little Shell's accounting practices and the lack of a unified government.
Also lost was the renewal of a tobacco prevention grant from the state that had funded at least two tribal employees.
In July, the state paid $70,000 to complete the purchase of the tribal office in Great Falls. That payment was made directly to the building's owners rather than through the Little Shell, said Kelly Casillas, an attorney with the Montana Department of Commerce.
She said the state already had spent $70,000 on the project and the tribe faced a deadline to complete the purchase or risk losing the property.
But the state has carefully avoided getting drawn into the tribe's political dispute, despite calls by some Little Shell members for Montana officials to settle the matter.
The timing of the proposed tribal court is uncertain. Gilbert said his side was pushing for resolution by the end of the year, when council elections have been scheduled by both factions.
But Sinclair said that timeline was unrealistic. A decision on which council is legitimate is unlikely before early 2011, he said.