After the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians gained federal recognition six months ago, students from the University of Montana School of Journalism talked at length with tribal members about what that means to them.
In this story, reporter Stephanie Maltarich finds Little Shell members in Missoula, Montana, who are trying to find each other through social media, genealogy and public events.
Without a reservation as a home base, the Little Shell nation has to work harder than others to find members who might be two streets over, yet still strangers. People are hungrier than ever to make these connections now that their tribe has achieved a recognition it's been fighting for for more than 100 years.
NARRATOR: I’m Stephanie Maltarich. Growing up, Katrina Campbell of Bonner, Montana, didn’t have much connection to her native heritage.
CAMPBELL: We had never really talked about being Little Shell, we never said, “We are Little Shell.”
NARRATOR: In late December 2019, after more than 130 years of trying, the tribe received federal recognition. Facebook groups popped up and others became a lot more active. Members and descendants of the tribe wanted to connect with each other. Campbell, who’s 29, is a member of the Facebook Group “Unity in Little Shell,” which has more than 1,300 members. People post photos of relatives and ancestors daily, sometimes reaching out for help as they figure out their lineage. In January, Campbell took notice when someone posted the Roe Cloud Roll.
CAMPBELL: My grandpa and great grandmother were on it, that’s when I really started to dive into the genealogical aspect of it, because it turns out, there is a lot of information.
NARRATOR: The Roe Cloud Roll of Landless Indians in Montana, compiled by Dr. Roe Cloud in 1938, was a list of names of people who were associated with several tribes, but remained unenrolled. Today, the list helps people trace their history and eligibility for enrollment with Little Shell. Facebook helped Campbell use the Roe Cloud Roll to expand her research. Now, she’s compiling all of the information on a site called WikiTree, a free project helping people draw their own family trees.
CAMPBELL: Diving into the past and seeing everyone else interested in their past made me want to connect with other living members rather than just thinking about my dead ancestors.
(SCENE TAPE: VOICES IN ROOM BEFORE CHRIS LA TRAY TALK IN TRAVELERS REST)
NARRATOR: It’s a Saturday morning on Leap Day at Traveler’s Rest State Park in Lolo. Chris La Tray, a writer and bookseller, is presenting on the history of his tribe for the Winter Storytelling Series. Like Campbell, La Tray didn’t know about his Little Shell heritage growing up. He’s currently putting the finishing touches on a book he’s writing, Becoming Little Shell. His research has taken him around the state to document his family and tribe’s history.
LA TRAY: I would do events and would talk about being Little Shell and inevitably I would be contacted by people saying, “Oh, I’m La Tray, too,” or “I’m Little Shell, too.” So that’s been interesting just kind of tying those pieces together.
NARRATOR: La Tray wants to connect with other Little Shell in Missoula. He even posted about the event on the Facebook page encouraging members to attend.
LA TRAY: There’s couple of us through one of the Little Shell Facebook groups were talking about ‘how do we come to know more of us that live in Missoula?’ Because there are a lot here that I don’t even know.
NARRATOR: During his talk, La Tray asked Little Shell members to stand up. A handful of people in the crowd did. With 114 enrolled members in Missoula, La Tray had hoped for a better turnout. La Tray hopes the initial excitement doesn’t disappear like a New Year’s Resolution in February.
VEIS: There was always these whispers that, you know, maybe we were native, maybe we were this, maybe we were that.
NARRATOR: That’s Valerie Veis, she was at La Tray’s talk. She’s an artist and member of the Little Shell tribe and she’s new to Missoula. As a child, Veis didn’t know her dad. She met him when her brother was in the hospital following a car accident.
VEIS: I walked into the room, and I saw a man standing there, and I knew he was my dad. So that’s where my journey began as to finding out who we were and what this meant to me. But before I could do any of that, I had to fill out a genealogy chart.
NARRATOR: It was then when she started to put two and two together, and she found herself going down a rabbit hole to research and learn about her native heritage.
VEIS: Back then we didn't have the internet. It wasn't like I could, you know, Google search anything. So I started writing letters. And I got a thinking, well, I’m going to see, I’m going to see if I belong to a tribe. Back came the letter, said you are an enrolled member of the Little Shell Tribe of the Chippawa Indians, and I was like, Whoa. You know, so this really is true this really is true.
NARRATOR: Veis says one of the most important things in unearthing her heritage, lineage and history were finding people who ended up being mentors. They helped her learn how she fit in, and what being Little Shell meant to her.
VEIS: When I found out, you know, that I was part of the Little Shell tribe I was like, what does this all mean to me? You know, where do I fit in? The mentoring helped me feel like I belonged there.
NARRATOR: Federal recognition hasn’t changed much for Veis, who’s 62. She's been enrolled for decades. Veis understands everyone has different reasons for wanting to enroll in the tribe: from housing to medical benefits, she recognizes many people have needs. For her, it was about her personal identity.
VEIS: I just did it because I didn’t know who the heck I was, and I wanted to find out who I was and where I fit into it.
NARRATOR: Back in her home outside of Missoula, Campbell scrolls through her phone looking at the family tree she’s created online. She sees her work as important because she wants to connect with Little Shell people living today.
CAMPBELL: When the federal recognition came, I was already in a position to recognize that this is an opportunity for me to build a community that’ve I’ve never had.
NARRATOR: Campbell feels it’s necessary to earn her spot instead of claiming it. To do that, she plans to use her skills to help the tribe’s present and future through her research.
CAMPBELL: We have to pull together and share our knowledge so we can all know about our history.
NARRATOR: In Missoula, I’m Stephanie Maltarich.
This story is funded in part by the Greater Montana Foundation.