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U.S. House Passes Bill Recognizing Little Shell Tribe

Little Shell Chippewa Tribe.

Montana’s Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians reached what may be a watershed moment Wednesday in its four-decade struggle for federal recognition. An unopposed bill to provide federal recognition to the Little Shell Tribe unanimously passed out of the full U.S. House.

Tribal Chairman Gerald Gray points out that’s never happened before.

“This is a really, really big deal for the Little Shell Tribe,” he says.

Federal designations formally recognize tribes as sovereign nations and can provide federal resources such as housing, education and medical care.

The Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians Restoration Act was one of the first bills Republican Congressman Greg Gianforte introduced in Congress.

“It was a lot of work between Mr. Gianforte, our lobbyist in D.C. and us working tirelessly just to keep pushing and pushing until we got something," Gray says. "We’re the squeaky wheel, and you know what that means – we get the grease.” 

As momentous as House passage may be, it’s only part of the story. The U.S. Senate must next pass the legislation, which has the support of both Republican Steve Daines and Democrat Jon Tester.

“I’m very optimistic because the Senate this year passed the Virginia Tribes bill and federally recognized them," says Gray. "I think this will be a lot smoother process now that the Senate has seen that they can do this.” 

President Trump signed a bill in January granting federal recognition to six tribes in Virginia.

Gianforte’s bill would not only restore recognition for the Little Shell, but also allow the tribe to purchase 200 acres of land to serve as its reservation; a stipulation that Gray says he could take or leave.

“The whole thing is getting the status of being federally recognized. That, realistically, is going to bring the dignity that a lot of us Little Shell members have been looking for for decades. We don’t necessarily need a reservation because none of us live on one now, because we don’t have one. It wouldn’t even be close to being a deal breaker.”

The state of Montana recognized the Little Shell Tribe in 2000.

There are an estimated 5,400 enrolled Little Shell in Montana. The tribe maintains an office in Great Falls.

O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the University of Montana School of Journalism. His first career job out of school was covering the 1995 Montana Legislature. When the session wrapped up, O’Brien was fortunate enough to land a full-time position at the station as a general assignment reporter. Feel free to drop him a line at
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