US House backs bill giving Montana tribe federal recognition

BILLINGS (AP) — The U.S. House passed a bill Wednesday that would give federal recognition to Montana’s Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians following a decades-long effort.

Federal recognition would validate the Little Shell’s identity and make its roughly 6,000 members eligible for government benefits ranging from education to health care. The tribe was recognized by the state of Montana in 2000.

Little Shell Chairman Gerald Gray said he was optimistic a companion measure would now advance through the Senate and be signed into law.

“I feel very optimistic. It’s the first time we’ve ever had a House bill come out of the chamber,” Gray said.

The bill was approved by a voice vote. A companion bill was endorsed by the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in May 2017 but has yet to receive a vote from the full Senate.

Montana U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, the first-term Republican lawmaker who sponsored the bill, said it became clear to him after his election that the Little Shell had suffered an injustice in being denied recognition.

“This is a big milestone,” Gianforte said. “This recognition is really due them through a treaty arrangement that dates back a long period of time.”

Montana U.S. Sen. Jon Tester issued a statement calling on the chamber’s Republican majority to take up the measure with “no strings attached.”

Both the House and Senate versions would require the U.S. Department of the Interior to acquire 200 acres for the Little Shell’s members that could be used for a tribal government center, housing or other purposes.

The Little Shell evolved from a group of French and Indian hunters and trappers affiliated with the historical Pembina Band of Chippewa Indians.

The tribe has been without a recognized homeland since the late 1800s, when Chief Little Shell and his followers in North Dakota broke off treaty negotiations with the U.S. government. Tribe members later settled in Montana and southern Canada.

Tribal leaders first petitioned for recognition through the Interior Department in 1978. Gray and other members trace their other attempts back to the 1860s, when the Pembina Band of Chippewa signed a treaty with the U.S. government.

The Interior Department gave preliminary approval to recognizing the Little Shell in 2000 but rescinded the move in 2009. The agency denied recognition for the Little Shell again in 2013.

There are more than 500 federally recognized Native American tribes in the United States.

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