‘A Day That Never Comes’ almost here: Little Chippewa Tribe will become official
FARGO — It appears the Little Shell Chippewa Tribe’s long wait for official recognition by the federal government will soon end.
The Thunder Pipe and Thirsty Dance Song ceremony — in preparation for the band’s anticipated official recognition — is scheduled at a state park near Ulm, Mont., because the Little Shell tribe has no reservation of its own.
“This is huge,” Gerald Gray Jr., chairman of the Little Shell tribe, said of the ceremony. “It’s revitalizing the traditions for the Little Shell people.”
Growing hopes for recognition are based on new standards for federal recognition for Indian tribes, which the Little Shell tribe meets in current draft form. Legislation to grant recognition also is pending before Congress.
The long quest for recognition once seemed so distant that an essay about the struggle was titled “Waiting For a Day That Never Comes.”
For 122 years, the followers of Chief Little Shell have been left without a homeland after he refused to sign an 1892 government offer for 10 cents an acre for land on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation.
Little Shell and his people were away on an extended hunting trip in Montana when what became known as the “Ten Cent Treaty” was presented and signed by other leaders.
The agreement followed the significant reduction of the Turtle Mountain reservation to accommodate the influx of settlers, dispossessing the Little Shell followers of a land base.
The Little Shell followers scattered, but most ended up in Montana, where they now are recognized as a tribe by the state government.
“This is North Dakota history actually being played out in Montana,” said Nicholas Vrooman, a historian who has chronicled the Little Shell tribe’s history.
The story’s beginnings trace back to Pembina, an early center in the Red River fur trade dating back to the early 1800s, and later St. Joseph, today’s Walhalla.
European traders, including French Canadians and Scottish immigrants, intermarried with Cree and Ojibwe or Chippewa women, creating a distinct Métis culture, French for mixed blood.
As with many other Northern Plains tribes, the Ojibwe and Métis supported themselves by hunting the wandering buffalo herds. As buffalo disappeared from the Pembina area, the Métis went farther west, ultimately into Montana, to find game.
Groups of Chippewa and Metis began moving to establish permanent homes in Montana and elsewhere in the 1870s.
The Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation, located in northern Rolette County, was established in 1882 and today covers 72 square miles. Scattered pockets of trust lands held for the tribe primarily are in North Dakota’s Williams County as well as several Montana counties.
Great Falls, Mont., emerged as a center of the Little Shell Chippewa diaspora and today is considered the “capital city” of the tribe. The tribe has offices in Great Falls and in May opened a nearby cultural center.
The Obama administration has been receptive to the Little Shell Chippewa Tribe’s efforts to gain federal recognition, appearing ready to reverse a 2009 denial from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Recognition from the state of Montana came in 2003.
Under revised recognition criteria, the tribe qualifies, but the new policy remains open for public comment, and could change in final form, Gray said.
Opposition has mostly come from other tribes in states outside Montana, notably Washington and Connecticut, he said.
“This is really disheartening,” Gray said. “Who are they to determine who’s recognized, who’s not?”
Little Shell members believe tribes opposing federal recognition appear mostly motivated by blocking what they fear could be a new competitor in tribal gaming casinos.
“They don’t want any more casinos. We’ve got casinos on every corner and every town in Montana,” Gray said, adding that the tribe has no ambition to enter a crowded field.
The BIA recognizes 566 tribes; the Little Shell Chippewa Tribe is among more than 200 seeking recognition.
Besides granting official legitimacy, federal recognition would open the door to more funding from the BIA and Indian Health Service.
“It’s a drop in a huge bucket,” Gray said, referring to costs the federal government would assume if it bestowed recognition. “It’s hardly anything.”
The Congressional Budget Office estimated the federal cost of recognizing the Little Shell tribe to be $36 million from 2015 to 2019. Gray estimated there are 5,900 members of the tribe, though he said many who are eligible haven’t bothered to enroll yet.
Nicholas Vrooman, a former Montana state folklorist who earlier worked on the Turtle Mountain reservation, is a historian for the Little Shell tribe.
Recognition would help to address a wrong that has plagued the Little Shell Chippewa for 122 years, Vrooman said, noting many have struggled financially with no land base to provide an economic foundation.
By contrast, their “cousin” tribes at Turtle Mountain in North Dakota and White Earth in Minnesota gained both recognition as well as reservations of their own, and today are less scattered.
“All these folks in Montana have been just out there sort of blowing in the wind,” Vrooman said.