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Little Shell recognition bill close to passage


December 10, 2019

The Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians are two steps away from federal recognition.

Recognition was included in a defense appropriations bill that came out of a joint committee Monday, and now needs approval from the House and Senate and the president’s signature for the tribe to be federally recognized after more than a century of effort by the Little Shell.

The recognition was kept in a defense appropriations bill by the joint committee resolving differences between the Senate and House versions of the bill.

“Today, I would just like to say our ancestors are smiling because now our future generations will not have to take up this battle, so we’re very grateful and truly, truly excited about this,” Little Shell Tribal Chairman Gerald Gray said in an interview by telephone, which he and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., gave the Havre Daily News.

Gray thanked Tester and Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., for getting the recognition this far. 

He said that this fight has been going on for more than 150 years and it is great to have Tester as a long-time supporter and friend.

“I’m almost without words, it’s so exciting,” Gray said. “It’s emotional.”

The tribe has been seeking federal recognition for decades, with Montana recognizing the Little Shell as a tribe in 2001. The Department of the Interior has refused to recognize the tribe, leading to efforts in Congress to recognize the tribe.

The Little Shell Tribe is headquartered in Great Falls and has more than 5,400 enrolled members across Montana and outside of the state.

Last year, a bill sponsored by Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., was the first Little Shell recognition bill to pass out of the U.S. House of Representatives, but it was killed in the Senate by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who blocked a vote on Little Shell recognition.

A bill sponsored by Gianforte this year again passed the House, but was not taken up in the Senate.

Gianforte praised the recognition’s inclusion in the defense approtiations.

"For too long, the Little Shell Tribe has had to wait for federal recognition,” he said this morning. “The efforts of Chairman Gray and the Little Shell people have put this overdue recognition closer to reality. I'm proud to have worked with Chairman Gray to clear this bill through the U.S. House in 2018 and 2019, and to get where we are today. Working together, we're nearing the finish line for this worthy cause." Tester said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., agreed to include the Little Shell recognition in the National Defense Authorization Act if the amendment was led by a Republican, which resulted in Daines introducing the amendment. He added that the National Defense Authorization Act is a must-pass bill and was a great way to get recognition for the tribe.

Tester said he has been working on getting the tribe recognized for a long time, and it doesn’t matter who led the charge with the legislation, just that the Little Shell Tribe will get the recognition that is long overdue.

“That is why this moment is so very, very important,” he said. “… This fight has been going on far too long.”

Daines’ Press Secretary Julia Doyle said this morning the senator is very happy the recognition was included.

“He thinks that this is completely, long overdue, and he has been working very closely with the Little Shell Tribe to make sure they get whatever they need to get this across the finish line.”

Tester said he expects The National Defense Authorization Act to be voted on by the House Wednesday and then go to the Senate for a final vote before going to the president’s desk. He added that he anticipates the bill will be out of Congress some time before Dec. 20.

Tester said that the Little Shell Tribe has worked long and hard to be federally recognized and it feels good to finally see that goal so close to being achieved. Recognition would allow the tribe to receive the same benefits allowed to other federally recognized tribes across the country.

Native American Tribes must be recognized as sovereign nations by the federal government in order to exercise full self-governance. This nation-to-nation relationship allows tribes to access critical resources for economic development, health care and education and regulate affairs on tribal lands on terms that are socially and culturally appropriate.

“They have never stopped, the Little Shell have never quit, through different administrations they have held firm on recognition,” he said. “… I think it is a wrong that has finally been put on the right side of the ledger.”

Doyle said that Daines will continue to fight for Montanans and be a proponent for the Little Shell Tribe.

“It’s one step closer, this is the furthest it’s ever been,” she said.

Tester said that it has been a hard-fought battle to get the Little Shell Tribe recognized, but it is time for the issue to move forward.

“In the end the past is history, so we can look forward to a brighter future,” he said. 


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