By Alan Sorensen
The Little Shell Band of the Chippewa finally got back Friday what was stripped from them more than 100 years federal acknowledgement that they are Indians.
"The comment I heard from all the phone calls from all the members," said Debbie Swanson of Havre, "is they can finally say, I am Indian. I am Little Shell.' Oh, what a proud day."
The tentative recognition as a federal tribe was reached by the U.S. Department of the Interior Friday. Just two days earlier, Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs Kevin Gover told a Senate committee that his agency was overwhelmed by the number of tribes seeking federal recognition.
Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt had said he would announce his decision on the status of the Little Shell on Friday. But earlier in the week, a Bureau of Indian Affairs official reportedly announced that the bureau didn't want to decide tribal status anymore. The BIA operates under the auspices of the Department of the Interior.
Friday's letter, addressed to Tribal Chairman Tim Zimmerman, was brief:
"Notice is hereby given that the Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs will publish in the Federal Register a proposed finding that acknowledges that the Little Shell Tribe of the Chippewa Indians of Montana exists as an Indian tribe within the meaning of Federal law."
The letter, signed by the acting director of the office of tribal services with the BIA, said the official documents recognizing Little Shell would be released following the holiday weekend.
The Little Shell band lost its federal recognition when its leader refused to sign the 10 cent (Pembina) Treaty in 1892. As a result, he and his followers were told to leave the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota and their names were taken off the reservation membership list. They became a "landless" tribe and during the ensuing years, most of its members settled in northcentral Montana.
An almost giddy Pat Maki, office manager of the tribal office in Great Falls, expressed relief touched with reverie this morning at the federal decision.
"We feel like it's a long time coming and it was just a wonderful day for us to see that finally happen," Maki said. "Particularly in the past couple of years, we've seen a lot of our elders pass away. This was for them to finally get our identity. It was for the elders and now it's for our youth coming up."
Swanson, who operates an accounting and tax consulting business in Havre, was chairman of the Little Shell Tribe for 13 years. She was the one who submitted the Tribe's petition for recognition in 1995. Shortly after submitting the proposal and reams of necessary paperwork, Swanson resigned from her leadership role. A short time later the Little Shell office was moved from Havre to Great Falls.
Swanson said this morning that her reaction when she first heard the news Friday was "total rejoice."
"At first there was shock and then it was it's about time,' and then it was it's a long time coming,'" Swanson said. "I'm just happy for all of our membership, that they can finally see that this day finally came."
Swanson's tenure as chairman was from 1982, when she first went on the council, to 1995.
"I was the chair who submitted the petition, so all I could do when I first got the phone call was just react in disbelief and then total joy and then tears just came rushing because it's been so long. But I never had doubt."
Swanson said the next six months is a time for public comment before the Tribe's federal status becomes permanent.
"It's merely a formality," she said. "Of course, we've been flooded with phone calls. It's a done did deal, but you've got to go through the process. They've got to get everything organized for us."
Everything, in this case, means lining tribal members up for Indian programs that they will soon be eligible for.
"It means that the elders are thankful because now they can look forward to health care and housing, our youth can look forward to education," Swanson said. "The opened doors are endless."
What all those doors may be is still up in the air, as is Swanson.
"It's still taking me time for everything to sink in. All I'm looking forward to is what the future is and what it's going to do. We're not sure yet (what it's going to do)."
Within the past couple of years, Little Shell leaders looked into a few economic opportunities they hoped would help with federal recognition and with tribal employment.
The Tribe was involved in Quantum V's efforts to construct a golf course on the east end of Havre. It also was looking into the possibility of developing a golf course on the east side of Great Falls.
Where tribal leaders choose to go with those and other plans will depend largely on the newly recognized Tribe's 4,000 plus members.
"I want to thank all the Little Shell members for having faith and patience with tribal operations," Swanson said. "I think that's important."