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The U.S. Senate approved by a voice vote Tuesday a formal recognition of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians as the potential 574th federally recognized tribe in the United States.

Formerly supported in the House with a vote of 377-48, the measure to grant formal recognition to the tribe passed as part of the National Defense Authorization Act and now only needs to be signed by the president to make it official.

“This is really amazing. We are so excited and it has been a long time coming,” Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians Chairman Gerald Gray said.

The chairman said that the process was more than all-consuming and wanted to acknowledge just how much work it took to accomplish getting recognized.

“I don't think people realize how many phone calls and letters and whatnot it took, just to keep this thing alive, and keep it moving,” he said. “And when it finally did come to fruition today, It was just amazing. It's a historic day for the Little Shell.”

The vote by the Senate Tuesday is the result of more than a century of efforts by the tribe to be recognized and more recently by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, and Sen. Steve Daines R-Montana. Tester has introduced legislation to recognize the tribe at every congressional session since 2007, Daines has co-sponsored the effort in the House and Senate.

“We’re at the finish line: the Little Shell Tribe has fought for more than a century to claim their rightful place as a sovereign nation, and for the last 12 years I’ve been honored to work alongside them to get it done,” said Sen.Tester in a statement in an email. “This is a historic day for the Tribe and for Montana, and now it’s finally time for the President to sign this bill into law and officially recognize the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians.”

“Today is a historic day for the Little Shell Tribe and the State of Montana,” Daines said in the statement. “For far too long, Congress kicked the can down the road and failed to federally recognize Little Shell. That’s why I made it my top priority to help get federal recognition across the finish line. I look forward to President Trump signing this huge victory for the Little Shell Tribe into law!”

The Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians, who first petitioned to be recognized by the Interior in the late ’70s, has been fighting to secure federal recognition for decades. The tribe does not have a formally recognized homeland since Chief Little Shell and his supporters refused to participate in treaty negotiations in North Dakota with the United States in the late 1800s. The tribe then settled in Montana and Canada.

Chairman Gray said the fact his tribe was not recognized and having to prove its existence has been a source of pain for years.

“I fought that stereotype, that stigma all my life,” he said. “It was disheartening, I grew up as a youngster in the Blackfeet and the Rocky Boy Reservation. And until now I wasn't either a really part of either one of them, but yet all my friends’ kids are playing, hanging out and doing things together. And the one word that I really irked me was when someone said, ‘Oh, you guys are wannabes. It really made me mad because we have hundreds of thousands of documents that we've submitted for the petition. I kid you not, there are hundreds of thousands proving who we were.”

Gray says he was always going to keep fighting.

“It's long overdue. When I became vice-chairman and then chairman, I said, ‘I'm going to keep fighting for this until it happens. I don't care. This is what something that's gotta be done. And my motto was, ‘I'm going to be that squeaky wheel.’”

Tribal secretary Terrie LaRocque also said she and members of the tribe were thrilled. “A lot of people are commenting all over our Facebook page, we are really excited that this has happened.

Senator Jon Tester visiting the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians in 2012 to update the tribe about their status in seeking recognition. Photo: Facebook

Senator Jon Tester visiting the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians in 2012 to update the tribe about their status in seeking recognition. Photo: Facebook

On the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians Facebook page, Gray also thanked Senators Tester and Daines as well as shared a message with his tribe of appreciation. 

Gray said in part:

This has been a long journey for our people and I am proud that it is finally over. We have worked tirelessly in this fight and the United States has finally reaffirmed our existence. This fight has always been about the dignity, identity, and culture of our people. The Little Shell Tribe and its people have, and will always, persist and thrive.

I am asking for everyone's patience as Tribal Council works through the details. It will take time to rebuild our governmental infrastructure but we are committed to that task. We will share more details as they are available.

As always we want to thank the Montana Congressional Delegation -- Senator Tester, Senator Daines, and Congressman Gianforte -- for their steadfast support, advocacy, and friendship. We appreciate the support of Governor Bullock, Attorney General Fox, and the Montana Legislature over these many years. Finally, we want to thank our longtime pro bono law firm Clause Law, P.L.L.C. for their years of tireless advocacy.

Chairman Gerald Gray

In March 2019, the U.S. House passed the Little Sheel recognition bill introduced by Congressman Gre Gianforte. In order to continue asserting pressure on the House and Senate Armed Forces Committee, Sen. Tester wrote a letter to the committee requesting the recognition language be inserted into the National Defense Authorization Act. The bill has since passed in the House and Senate.

Today the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians is located in the Great Falls area and there are an approximate 5,400 members in Montana. They were state recognized in 2000.

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