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.
Victor Yvellez begins his story with one young woman, Ekoo Beck, who's considering disenrolling from Blackfeet and enrolling Little Shell. Her mother and grandmother talk, too, about that decision and why it's limiting to have to make these kinds of tribal membership choices.
With Ekoo, Victor travels from her home in Missoula, Montana, to a cemetery where her relatives are buried on the Hi-Line. They go to Browning to talk about what the federal recognition of Little Shell means — and doesn't mean — to Indigenous people defining their own identities.
Narrator: I’m Victor Yvellez. For Iko’tsimiskimaki Beck, or Ekoo for short, connection to land is part of who she is. That includes land where her family’s buried. We’re at the Augusta cemetery, at the base of the Rocky Mountain Front. It’s where generations of her family are.
Ekoo Beck: Because I’ve come out here my entire life. So, it’s also a way for my mom to explain who all our relatives are and the family tree is by coming out here.
Narrator: Surrounding the cemetery are lands the Blackfeet Indians inhabited for hundreds of years. Ekoo, who’s 24-years-old, is currently enrolled in the Blackfeet Nation, but not as a full member.
Ekoo Beck: Right now, in Blackfeet I’m a descendent, which means I can’t vote and I can’t receive certain benefits.
Narrator: That’s because she doesn't have enough blood quantum, which is starting to push out young people who don’t have children within their tribe. In addition to being Blackfeet, Ekoo’s also Metis and white. Being mixed race was tough for her growing up. She didn’t feel like she belonged in any one group.
Ekoo Beck: In Native communities I find it very important to talk about mixed race because there is a lot of shame about being mixed race. And I feel like there should be no shame in that because again there is no way to change the fact that you have white blood. So, I feel like it’s important to state that.
Narrator: Metis culture and heritage originates from the early days of the fur trade, when Europeans mixed with Native Americans. The largest Metis group in Montana, where Ekoo lives and works, is the Little Shell Tribe. That tribe has been fighting for federal recognition for more than 100 years. In late 2019, they finally got it. That’s a big deal and Ekoo Beck is among descendents who now want in in a way they didn’t before.
Ekoo Beck: I wanna be able to vote and be an actual member of a sovereign nation versus just a descendant of a sovereign nation.
Narrator: Ekoo, who grew up in Missoula and went to Harvard for her undergrad, has to disenroll from Blackfeet to enroll into the newly federally recognized Little Shell Tribe. University of Montana professor Rosalyn Lapier, who’s written a lot about Native identity and activism, doesn't really agree with that.
Rosalyn Lapier: The United States government only allows individuals to enroll in one tribe and not two. Even if you come from two or three tribes, legally you’re supposed to only be allowed to enroll in one tribe. So first of all, I think that’s hogwash.
Narrator: Lapier is a professor of Environmental Studies at UM. She’s Metis and enrolled in the Blackfeet Nation. And she’s also Ekoo’s mom.
Rosalyn Lapier: I think that Ekoo should be allowed to be enrolled both in Blackfeet and Little Shell. I think that being enrolled at Little Shell, because she’ll be a full enrolled member and not a descendent of the tribe, she will have more rights.
Narrator: As often as she can, Ekoo drives from Missoula to the reservation, visiting her grandmother, aunt and other family. Along the way are Augusta and Choteau, small towns where Metis lived and thrived, including her own. The Augusta cemetery is a regular stop on her drive.
Angie Lapier lives in the heart of Browning where her fenced yard doesn’t keep out the neighbor’s dogs. Inside, she and her granddaughter go through photo albums
[audio of Angie and Ekoo talking]
and talk about life and family.
Angie Lapier: My children, Rosalyn and Bill, their dad is Chippewa from Turtle Mountain, which is part of that Little Shell that left Turtle Mountain. They were always called the “landless Indians” cause they didn’t have any land. Even though they were landless Indians, they knew they lived in Augusta, they knew they lived outside of Hill 57, they knew they lived in Great Falls. You know.
Narrator: Angie says it isn't fair that the Little Shell needed to wait so long for recognition. They had been living here long before a federal government was around, from either the U.S. or Canada, which is about an hour north.
Angie Lapier: We’re First Nations, we’re here first. This is our land. It has always been our land. Were first nation. It's our right, we’re from here. Our ancestors are from here.
Narrator: The recognition of Metis identity in the United States and Canada has been slow. And the Little Shell people are finally winning a political battle that they’ve been fighting for over a century.
Ekoo Beck: I’ve enjoyed the fact that federal recognition happened because it actually made me look into it, because before I was just disregarding that identity in my life. Because it wasn't important to me and it served no purpose. Honestly, like thats how I felt. And so I’m glad I had the opportunity to realize I can also have culture without federal recognition as well, although it took federal recognition for me to care a little more deeply than before I suppose.
Narrator: In Montana, I’m Victor Yvellez
This story is funded in part by the Greater Montana Foundation.