Tester wants Little Shell recognition

Great Falls Tribune

by Michael Beall

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester reiterated his support for federal recognition of the Little Shell and vowed to keep fighting for it during the Great Falls-based tribe's quarterly council meeting Saturday morning.

"It should be done," Tester said. "It's a noncontroversial tribal recognition. It's not being done for gaming purposes. It's being done for the right purposes."

The Little Shell Tribal Council joked that maybe a rain dance would bring Tester out in the midst of a fierce battle for re-election against U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg. Their wish came true with the morning's light rain and a visit from the senator.

Tester, D-Mont., entered the VFW Post 1087 and shook hands with everyone from the door to the podium ahead of the meeting. The tribe's 70-year battle for federal recognition was at the top of the itinerary and the reason for the senator's appearance.

"We have a man here who I'm going to consider one of our Little Shell warriors," said council Chairman John Gilbert. "Senator John Tester from Big Sandy, Montana."

The tribe, which is recognized by the state but not the federal government, has worked desperately for sovereignty. They received recognition for a short period in 2000 before it was revoked.

The Department of the Interior turned down the petition for recognition, and an appeal is in process. The problem is, Tester said, "there has never been an appeal that's been reversed. Ever."

There's a list of road blocks in the way of the Little Shell's recognition. The first is politics. Members of Congress believe that the administration should grant recognition, not the legislative branch.

Additionally, the bill will not pass alone. It needs to be attached to other legislation, and the best way would be with a number of recognition bills.

The problem with riding the Little Shell with other tribal recognitions is gaming.

"Where we have problems is what's happening across the country, where tribes and sometimes just a family have received recognition for the purpose of gaming," Tester said. "This has come back, and people are nervous about giving recognition unless it's done for the right reasons."

In the question-and-answer period, Frank Belgarde III brought up the executive branch and asked if there is any way of pushing recognition through the Obama administration.

The senator said they have tried that route, and he's going to continue the fight through any avenue necessary.

"I don't think it will bring federal recognition, but it solidifies his political alliance with us," Belgarde said outside the VFW following Tester's speech. "It shows he's trying to get us there, but I don't think Washington will ever give it to us through just his work."

For Gilbert and the Little Shell Council, Tester's visit is an emotional lift, but they have work to do on the ground in Great Falls and throughout Montana.

"It gives the Little Shell people encouragement," he said. "It's uplifting to us to see the man who's trying to get legislation through to visit us over here."

The tribe is recovering from disputes and their revoked recognition, but right now tribal members are reuniting and moving forward with a positive outlook.

"We're waiting for the day that never comes," Gilbert said. "Now we just hope it comes."