While the U.S. House impeachment proceedings captured most of the attention in Washington, D.C., this week, the Senate took a historic vote in favor of long-overdue recognition for a landless Montana Indian tribe.

Federal recognition of the Little Shell Band of Chippewa was included as an amendment in the must-pass $738 billion National Defense Authorization Act. That act includes a 3% raise for U.S. military personnel and most other defense appropriations for the rest of this fiscal year through Sept. 30, 2020. Little Shell recognition was included because of strong support from Montana's entire congressional delegation.

Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., supported Little Shell recognition in a stand-along bill and in the NDAA that the House passed last week.

Sen. Jon Tester, who first introduced legislation to recognize the Little Shell Tribe in 2007, continued to advocate for the tribe, along with Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont. As a member of the Senate majority party, Daines was key to getting the tribe recognized. Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell agreed to keep the Little Shell amendment in the final NDAA, which passed the Senate 86-8.

Tribal Chairman Gerald Gray of Billings thanked Daines, Tester and Gianforte after the vote. "This is just an unbelievable day right now," Gray said in a teleconference call with Tester and Daines on Tuesday.

On Jan. 8 of this year, Daines and Tester jointly introduced S.51 to recognize the Little Shell. Their bill recounts the 90-year struggle of the Little Shell to be accorded rights previously recognized for other tribes that were parties to the Pembina Treaty of 1863:

  • In the Pembina Treaty of 1863, Chippewa Tribes ceded a large area of land in the state of North Dakota to the United States.
  • The Little Shell Tribe is successor to the treaty signatories. Other treaty successors (Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa of North Dakota and the Chippewa-Cree Tribe of the Rocky Boy's Reservation of Montana) have already been federally recognized.
  • The Little Shell repeatedly petitioned the U.S. government for recognition in the 1930s and 1940s under the Indian Reorganization Act. Federal agents concluded that the tribe was eligible for trust land under the act, but "due to lack of federal appropriations during the Depression, the Bureau of Indian Affairs lacked adequate financial resources to purchase land for the tribe, and the members of the tribe were denied the opportunity to reorganize."
  • The tribe "continued to exist as a separate community with leaders exhibiting clear political authority."
  • The tribe, along with the Turtle Mountain and Rocky Boy's tribes sued under the Indian Claims Commission Act of 1946 for compensation for land and received awards for their claims in 1971 and 1982, but the Little Shell still were not a recognized tribe.
  • In 1978, the tribe petitioned the Bureau of Indian Affairs for recognition; that petition is still pending.
  • "The federal government, the state of Montana and other federally recognized Indian tribes of the state have had continuous dealings with the recognized political leaders of the tribe since the 1930s." (Montana officially recognized the tribe in 2001.)

There are about 5,400 known Little Shell members, but there may be others. On Thursday, the tribe's website said: "Because the tribe has been without a land base for over 100 years, many members and their descendants live outside of Montana. Many changes are expected during the next decade as federal recognition is implemented."

The legislation doesn't specifically appropriate money for the Little Shell, but federal recognition means the tribal members now are eligible for health, education and other benefits under the 1863 treaty. The legislation directs the secretary of Interior to acquire 200 acres of trust land for the tribe.

President Trump has said he would sign the NDAA "immediately" after Congress approved it. When he does, that huge appropriations bill will right a historic injustice for thousands of Montanans and their fellow tribal members scattered throughout the United States and Canada. Congress often appears incapable of doing anything, but this week, amid the partisan turmoil of the Trump impeachment, the House and Senate finally completed a major portion of the belated 2020 budget and did what has long been needed for the Little Shell Tribe of Montana. Thanks to Daines, Tester and Gianforte for working for Montanans.

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Opinion Editor

Opinion editor for The Billings Gazette.