HELENA — Leaders of an American Indian tribe in Montana awaiting federal recognition told Gov. Steve Bullock in a recent tribal summit they believe they are closer than ever to that goal.
The Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians Council Chairman Gerald Gray told the Democratic governor last week that proposed rule changes for recognizing American Indian tribes would put a nod from the U.S. government within their reach.
“We meet all the criteria,” Gray said of the proposed overhaul to the rules by the U.S. Department of the Interior. “I think it’s going to happen.”
The proposed changes to the criteria used to determine tribal recognition are in the midst of a monthslong finalization process and would streamline approvals if they stand.
The changes would include eliminating the requirement that an external entity identify the group as Indian since 1900. Instead that review would begin with the year 1934 to align with the U.S. repudiation of allotment and assimilation policies.
The U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee approved legislation in April that would recognize the tribe. Gray said he doesn’t expect that bill to receive a vote on the Senate floor, leaving the Little Shell’s fate to the Interior Department’s rule changes.
Federal recognition could bring the Little Shell tribe land, along with housing and education assistance.
The landless tribe of about 4,500 members loosely centered in Great Falls has been recognized by the state of Montana since 2000. But its drive for federal recognition, which dates back at least 35 years, hit a major roadblock in 2009 when officials rejected the bid.
The Little Shell tribe has applied again, and a recent public-comment period resulted in no negative responses, Gray said.
The tribe traces its ancestry to the Pembina Band of Chippewa Indians, who in the 1800s were under the leadership of Chief Little Shell when they were offered a land deal that resulted in the band leaving North Dakota.
Government pledges to establish a reservation for the tribe in Montana never came through.
Gray, Bullock and others met as part of the annual Tribal Leaders Summit at the State Capitol in Helena.