Roughly six months ago, the federal government officially recognized the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians as a sovereign nation. It was national news then. But what does it mean now for the members and descendants of Little Shell? Nine students from the University of Montana School of Journalism spent a semester reporting on the impact of recognition on what has long been considered Montana’s “landless tribe.” This story is part of the student-produced series, Project Little Shell.
It's February, about two months after the tribe received the federal recognition it had sought for more than 130 years. Linda Watson is shuffling papers at her desk at the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians' headquarters in Great Falls. She's received a lot of phone calls recently.
Watson is the tribe's enrollment officer. Since 2017, she's been the volunteer who approves or rejects every application to become an official member. The office has been slammed since recognition, which the president signed into law in December. Watson has never seen so much interest to enroll.
“Every time there was a media notification of all the Little Shell have achieved this, it's passed the House or it's in the Senate. I would get a blitz of phone calls and I would get lots and lots of enrollment applications,” Watson said.
After the particulars of federal recognition are sorted out, members will have access to benefits like health care. That's partly why so many people have tried to enroll lately. The Little Shell typically got two to three applications a week. In the time surrounding recognition, more than 40 people per month sent in paperwork from around the country.
“This is unprecedented,” Watson said.
Cassidy Johnson heard about recognition from an article posted on Facebook. The preschool special education teacher is working on enrollment applications for herself and three of her children who are currently raiding the kitchen of their home on the Flathead Indian Reservation.
Meanwhile, Johnson sits at a nearby table behind a stack of enrollment papers.
Johnson's been piecing the applications together for two years. Filling in the family tree back through her great, great grandparents has been the most difficult part.
“I'm pretty lucky that my mom's pretty organized and she's been really great about keeping records of all my grandparents is like birth certificates and it has like, 'Hey, can I steal that from you,'” Johnson said.
Johnson has Salish and Pend d’Oreille ancestors, but not enough lineage to enroll with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. She's considered a second generation descendant, which is an important distinction on the reservation. In 2007, with a baby on the way, Johnson decided to quit her drafting job with NorthWestern Energy in Butte. She moved back to the Flathead and called a local energy company on the reservation to ask about a job opening.
“One of his first questions was if I was an member and I said ‘No, but I'm a descendant and I was born and raised here’. He said, ‘Well, I only look at enrolled members applications' and said 'Good luck,' basically and hung up on me.’ That was really devastating,” Johnson said.
Around that time, Johnson began to learn more about the other branches of her family tree. One of Johnson's grandfathers was enrolled with the Little Shell, but she didn't know much about the tribe until going back to college to become a teacher. Since then, it's become part of her identity.
“I'm a lot of things that I'm very proud of, like I'm French and Irish and I'm Salish and Pondera and I always teach my kids that you're proud of every part of your family tree, because if you don't, you deny somebody that help create you. So. I don't want to undermine any of that. But I for some reason really relate to the Chippewa Little Shell tribe. And I can't really tell you why or why. I just do,” Johnson said.
Johnson says tribal membership would provide a better chance to land another job on the Flathead Reservation, even if that enrollment is with another tribe like the Little Shell. As for Johnson's children, they're also descendants of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.
They would need Little Shell enrollment to apply for college scholarships requiring tribal affiliation. Without that funding, they may need student loans.
“Well, I'm basically a single income mom. I probably will never be able to pay for their schooling in whatever endeavors they want to try and do,” Johnson said.
Johnson plans to file her family's enrollment applications this summer, but she doesn't know whether her kids have enough Chippewa blood to join the Little Shell. Linda Watson back in the enrollment office most often has to deny membership for that reason.
“What a heartache for those individuals that want their children to be eligible to be enrolled. And by one 64th, it can't happen,” Watson said.
Measuring Indian ancestry can be challenging, even with paperwork documenting family history. Many applicants don't know whether they're eligible to enroll with a Little Shell until Watson crunches the numbers.
"You're certified blood degree is three 32nds Chippewa. one 32nd Cree or one eighth total. You were enrolled,” Watson said.
Moments like those make Watson happy to volunteer for the tribe, but someone else may be delivering application updates a few years from now. The tribe expects to hire paid enrollment employees after the federal government starts sending money its way. In the meantime, Watson has plenty of phone calls to return, waiting for more answers.