A three-judge panel working with the Native American Rights Fund will soon make a ruling in the contentious battle to determine who is the legitimate leader of the Little Shell Band of the Chippewa Indians.
A lot more is at stake than whether John Gilbert or John Sinclair can call themselves the leader of the tribe.
True, either Gilbert or Sinclair will have the honor of leading this proud group of people who have been fighting uphill battles for centuries.
But the winner will also have to deal with the many problems the tribe has to deal with in the future.
First, the leader will have to mend wounds that have ripped the tribe apart in recent years. For more than a decade, elections have turned into contests over bitter allegations and lawsuits.
But the tribe faces further troubles.
Unlike the other eight tribes recognized by Montana, Little Shell has no reservation, no place to call home.
Federal aid is denied to Little Shell. It's a hand-to-mouth operation, held together by the determination of its members to maintain its great traditions. Unlike other tribes, the tribal officials serve without pay.
The state of Montana and Montana's congressional delegation favor federal recognition. No surprise there — Little Shell members vote.
But the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs won't budge in denying federal recognition, a move that would offer all kinds of opportunities to the Little Shell. It may also hold the key to the future.
Little Shell members are spread all over Montana, indeed all over the United States and Canada. They have held onto tribal traditions, even as they have had careers and lifestyles of their own.
Because, in part, they have no reservation, tribal members have married people outside the tribe.
According to the tribal constitution, people who are one-eighth Little Shell can continue to be enrolled if they have an enrolled parent. But what will happen in the next generation and the one after that. Will people maintain their Little Shell identity as they lose blood lineage? Will this rich culture wither away?
If the Little Shell tradition is lost in future generations, all Native Americans, all Montanans, Americans will be big losers.
The hearing on Saturday may have been the first step in a Little Shell reconciliation. The two sides had passionate differences on what has happened in the past and what should happen in the future. But the hearing was civil and lacked some of the acrimony that has dominated other discussions between the two sides.
For a brief moment, it appeared as if there might be a settlement to the lingering dispute. It didn't work out, but it may have been the beginning of talks.
At the end of Saturday's session, elders called on participants to hold hands and join in a community prayer. Some may have had to swallow hard, but they all joined in.
The three judges now face the tough task of putting things in order.
If, as tribal attorney Robert LaFountain suggested, they call for new elections, perhaps supervised by the Native American Rights Fund, the tribe may be on track to putting the past behind them and moving on to the critical issues they face.