Panel: Yes to federal recognition of tribe

Great Falls Tribune

by Malia Rulon Herman

WASHINGTON – A key Senate committee voted unanimously Wednesday to approve legislation that would grant federal recognition to Montana’s Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians.

Shortly before the voice vote in the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, the committee’s chairman and the bill’s sponsor, said the issue of granting federal recognition to the Little Shell should not be controversial.

“All of the tribes in Montana support the Little Shell, and there is no record of anyone opposing their recognition,” he said.

Tester added that the Little Shell has “unique circumstances which warrant congressional action.”

A separate bill also approved Wednesday by the committee would extend federal recognition to the Chickahominy Indian Tribe, the Chickahominy Indian Tribe-Eastern Division, the Upper Mattaponi Tribe, the Rappahannock Tribe, the Monacan Indian Nation and the Nansemond Indian Tribe.

Montana has recognized the Little Shell Tribe since 2003. But the tribe has had difficulty gaining federal recognition – and the tribal land and benefits that come with it.

The tribe first applied for such recognition in 1978. Its application received preliminary approval under the Clinton administration but was delayed for eight years under the George W. Bush administration and was denied in 2009 by the Obama administration.

The tribe has appealed, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs is re-examining the case.

At a Senate hearing in October, the head of the bureau said the Obama administration supports legislation to grant the tribe recognition.

Gerald Gray, chairman of the Little Shell Tribe, urged senators at that hearing to act quickly.

“The tribe has been in the process for all or parts of five decades,” he said.

In the meantime, he said, tribal members have lacked federally designated lands where they can protect their heritage and culture, and “desperately needed services and housing.”

Gray said after Wednesday’s vote that he’s optimistic. The bill still must be approved by the full Senate and the U.S. House.

“Anytime something moves forward in the positive direction for us, it’s huge,” he said. “We’ve been at this, fighting for this for such a long time.”