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Landless tribe is still on federal recognition waiting list

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By Matthew Brown -- Associated Press

GREAT FALLS, Mont. (AP) - Long after the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa was stripped of its land and scores of its people had been moved to Canada, the 4,300 surviving members are fighting to reclaim the shards of their past.

Through the years, and with intermarriage with Canadian fur trappers, tribal members have been left in such an ethnic and cultural limbo that, to some, it would appear they have lost their identity. But tribal leaders say it's that history of tragedy and perseverance that defines them.

''People look at us and say, 'You're not Indian,''' said Little Shell Chairman John Sinclair. ''We say, 'We're not. We're Little Shell.'''

For now, the bond remains largely of the tribe's own making. The federal government has yet to recognize the tribe despite a campaign spanning more than a century.

The Little Shell and 95 other groups are actively pursuing tribal sovereignty claims, many of which have languished for decades.

Work to address the backlog has moved at the rate of barely one decision a year while groups like the Little Shell struggle to keep their claim on history alive.

Frustrated at the bureaucratic morass, some members of Congress, tribal leaders and Indian advocates are calling for an end to the current recognition system - established in 1978. They say its intent - to provide a level playing field - has devolved into a ''black hole'' that swallows petitions for decades.

''It's been a 30-year experiment that's failed,'' said Jack Campisi, a retired Wellesley College anthropologist who worked on recognition petitions for more than two dozen tribes. Of those petitions, only three have been successfully resolved.

''I worked on the Little Shell petition in the '80s, and most of the people that I worked on it with are now dead,'' said Campisi, who is in his mid-70s.

Federal officials blame the glacial pace on a combination of stretched resources and rigorous standards. A spokesman for the BIA said the agency had no choice but to adhere to the system established by Congress.

''The process is in place. It is what it is,'' said spokesman Nedra Darling.

Legislation to scrap the current system has not advanced beyond the committee level, but the stacks of documents submitted for pending cases are steadily growing. One petition, by the United Houma Nation in Louisiana, has ballooned to more than 100,000 pages.

Little Shell members say recognition would provide access to federal health care, affordable housing and education grants. And it would give new focus to a people pulled apart by time, distance and repeated rejection.

''We want to try to get the culture back in our family before it's gone,'' said Bruce Landrie, a Little Shell who grew up on a Crow reservation in southeastern Montana. ''If we wait 50 years more, it will be.''

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The forefathers of today's Little Shell were a band of the Chippewa who migrated to the Northern Plains in the 1700s.

After ending up in the Turtle Mountain region of North Dakota in the late 1800s, the tribe was approached by federal agents seeking to buy land for white homesteaders. The offered price was 10 cents an acre.

Chief Little Shell refused to sign what he considered an unfair deal. His people were taken off the Chippewa tribal roll and became a ''landless tribe'' - an estimated 5,000 people roaming the Northern Plains in search of the last great bison herds.

The bison were soon nearly wiped out by white settlers and the Little Shell scattered. An estimated 600 were relocated by federal authorities to the Canadian border - most walked south into Montana. They ended up on other reservations and on frontier outposts, where they intermarried with French-Canadian trappers.

Because of their mixed ancestry, many of today's Little Shell have pale skin. Some are blond. Their traditional song is a fiddle tune - the Red River Jig. Their flag has a split background: half red and half white.

In the early 20th century, a tribal leader named Joe Dussome revived the Little Shell's federal recognition hopes. He and other leaders held dances to raise money for trips to Washington to press their case.

In the 1930s, federal officials promised a reservation but later backed out after being unable to raise the money for the land, according to the tribe.

To be recognized under the current federal system, the Little Shell must prove not just who they are but who their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents were - all the way back to the 1860s.

A descendant of Dussome, 73-year-old Edna Teske, has been chronicling her people's history since the 1980s, visiting dozens of communities across the Northern Plains and up into the Canadian Rockies, searching out families to add to the tribe's federal petition.

''We've been scattered all over ever since I can remember, just pushed from here to there and everywhere,'' Teske said.

About 300 Little Shell members recently convened in Great Falls for their annual Joe Dussome Day.

Surveying the crowd was an anthropologist from the BIA, who measured the depths of tribal relations and studied the deference given to tribal leaders.

The anthropologist declined to be interviewed, but R. Lee Fleming, director of the bureau's Office of Federal Acknowledgment, said such visits can determine if there is sufficient ''continuity'' to support a tribe's recognition claim. The agency's aim is ''to understand their travels through time,'' he said.

In 2000, Fleming's office announced it was leaning toward recognition for the Little Shell. But the government also said the tribe's case needed to be bolstered. Thousands more documents have since been submitted.

A final decision could be made by the spring. Sinclair, the tribal president, said he has learned not to expect too much.

''They try to treat every tribe the same, but they all have different histories and they all have different heritages,'' he said. ''We don't act like the white people or the red people want us to act or look. We're Little Shell first.''