The years-long dispute between rival factions of the Little Shell Tribe may come to a head this weekend when a three-member panel of judges hears arguments from both sides.
A dissident faction contends that the 2008 election of John Sinclair of Havre as the official leader of the group was conducted in violation of tribal rules. They held a second election in which John Gilbert of Great Falls was elected chair.
Gilbert and Sinclair have both claimed leadership of the tribe ever since. Members of both sides say the resulting acrimony has hurt the tribe's efforts to win federal recognition.
In a joint press release, Sinclair and Gilbert said the Native American Rights Fund in Boulder, Colo., has named the three-member panel of "highly experienced tribal judges."
The judges will listen to testimony from both sides and render a decision within 60 days.
Both sides are hoping the decision can be arrived at in less time, hopefully before the end of the year.
The session will begin at 9 a. m. in Heritage Hall at Montana State University-Great Falls College of Technology. The hearing is open to the public.
The press release said Gilbert and Sinclair have agreed that the judges' ruling will be "final and binding."
Exactly what rules will be followed at the hearing was not clear Friday.
Gilbert said he was reluctant to say anything else about the hearing, fearful that any comment would enflame tensions.
Little Shell members have been working for decades to win federal recognition for the tribe, and Little Shell officials have feared that the dissension in the tribe made the already uphill effort to win recognition even harder.
Members of Montana's congressional delegation have supported the proposal, and the state of Montana has officially recognized the tribe.
But the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, in a lengthy report issued last year, rejected the tribe's application.
Who: Rival factions of the Little Shell Tribe.
What: A hearing to settle their lingering dispute.
Where: Montana State University-Great Falls COT.
When: 9 a. m. Saturday.
Follow the hearing: The Havre Daily News will report on the hearing via @HavreDaily and on the website www.havredailynews.com.