BILLINGS — Members of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians took their century-long campaign for recognition before Congress on Thursday, with what was called a last chance request for acknowledgement.
The landless tribe of about 4,300 people was recognized a decade ago by officials and other tribes in Montana, where most Little Shell live. But its petition for federal recognition was turned down by the Department of Interior in 2009 after a 31-year wait.
"For too long, we've been refugees in Montana, waiting for the United States to fulfill its promise," tribal president John Sinclair said during a Thursday legislative hearing before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. "This is our last chance. Little Shell and Congress have been having this conversation for more than 100 years."
Members of the tribe said attempts to establish relations with the government began in the late 1800s.
In the 1930s, the government planned to buy 34,000 acres in part to settle Montana's Little Shell, known by some as the "landless Indians." The deal was never completed.
Legislation backed by Montana's congressional delegation would mandate recognition and direct the Department of Interior to set aside 200 acres for the tribe. Recognition also would allow the Little Shell to receive assistance with housing and other needs.
Deputy Assistant Interior Secretary George Skibine told the Senate committee Thursday the agency would not object to the bill sponsored by Montana Sen. Jon Tester.
However, the committee's ranking Republican, Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, said he would oppose the bill.
Barrasso questioned whether Congress should second-guess the Interior Department's decision in 2009.
Tester, a Democrat, countered that the administrative process isn't always perfect and said the agency's 2009 rejection had ignored the Little Shell's established presence in Montana.
"They've been part of Montana's history and culture for generations," Tester said. "Every political entity in the state of Montana, every tribe thinks this has to be the right thing to do."
The hearing was set against a backdrop of political discord among members of the tribe. Two people are claiming to be the tribe's rightful leader.
Sinclair rival John Gilbert was not invited to testify Thursday.
Both sides have accused the other of undermining the recognition bid. The tribe's lawyers have said the dispute has no bearing on federal recognition — and even underscores a commitment to civic participation by the tribe's scattered members.
The 2009 denial of recognition said the Little Shell had failed to show enough cohesion during the early 1900s, after many of its 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.
The Little Shell are candid about their mixed ancestry. Many also call themselves Metis, a Canadian people with European and Native-American roots.
Montana formally recognized the Little Shell in 2000, allowing its members to get grants for tobacco-use prevention and economic development.
The money was suspended two years ago because the tribe was not properly accounting for it, stirring dissension among members who blamed Sinclair's poor oversight. That helped drive Gilbert's election in a campaign that was rejected by Sinclair and his allies as illegitimate.
"It's going to be an ongoing saga, where our tribe is just going to be constantly an embarrassment, but it's also not going to go away. We are committed to bringing democracy back to our tribal government and that's all we want," said former tribal president James Parker Shield, who backs Gilbert.
Gilbert has been pushing for an independent panel or Indian court to resolve the political split. Sinclair has said he agrees in principal to the idea, but it has been languishing for months.
Elected officials from Montana have steered clear of the tribe's internal struggle, saying it is up the Little Shell to work it out.