Montana Tribe Navigates New Ground After Federal Recognition

The Little Shell Tribe celebrated their federal recognition on Jan. 25, 2020

By NORA MABIE, Great Falls Tribune

GREAT FALLS — One year ago, Little Shell tribal members rejoiced when the “day that never comes” finally arrived.

The tribe had been without a recognized homeland since the late 1800s, when Chief Little Shell and his followers broke off treaty negotiations with the U.S. government.

But a generations-long fight to secure the elusive ended on Dec. 20, 2019.

The Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians of Montana gained federal recognition status when President Donald Trump signed the National Defense Authorization Act, which contained an amendment pertaining to the tribe.

“It was so overwhelming and there was so much excitement when it finally happened,” Chairman Gerald Gray said. “But, I had no idea what was to happen in the coming year.”

The Little Shell Tribe celebrated their federal recognition on Jan. 25, 2020.

Just one year later, the Little Shell Tribe has made great strides. The tribe purchased a building for a health clinic, hired employees to fill new positions and is working to create programs that will expand affordable housing.

But the tribe also has encountered unforeseen challenges as it forges a relationship with the federal government and works to establish independence.

After securing federal recognition status, Gray said he hoped to establish a clinic to provide health care services to members.

That goal became the tribe’s No. 1 priority when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Montana just a few months later.

Without a designated Indian Health Service (IHS) facility, Gray said many members traveled from Great Falls to Rocky Boy, about 200 miles roundtrip, or to Browning, 250 miles roundtrip.

“There’s a big misconception that we get great free health care,” Gray said of IHS, the federal agency responsible for providing medical services to federally recognized tribes.

“Well, it’s not always great,” he said of IHS, adding that the agency offers limited services and is chronically underfunded.

The Little Shell Tribe purchased a 10,000 square-foot building on Smelter Ave. and is converting it to meet IHS standards for an outpatient tribal health clinic. Gray said IHS will run the clinic for three years before the tribe can manage services.

The clinic will offer comprehensive care, including medical, dental, vision, pharmaceutical and behavioral health services.

“If you’re gonna build something from the ground up, why not do something really special?” Gray said of the clinic.

Gray expects the clinic to open near the end of January, but said the process has been slower than he had imagined.

“Indian Health Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Department of Housing and Urban Development, all of these organizations that support federally-recognized tribes have never had a tribe recognized in this region,” he said. “So all people involved are facing a steep learning curve.”

“Plus, we are different in that we don’t have a reservation,” Gray added. “That made it more complex for everyone.”

Gray said Sen. Jon Tester has supported the tribe as it navigates new territory.

“Federal recognition for the Little Shell was a long time coming, but our work didn’t end that day,” Tester said. “Moving forward I remain focused on holding the federal government accountable to the Little Shell Tribe, and on ensuring that we live up to the trust and treaty responsibilities we owe them.”

The Little Shell Tribe received $25 million from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which was passed by Congress in March.

“If we were still a state-recognized tribe, we wouldn’t have received anything,” Gray said.

The tribe used the CARES Act money to distribute two COVID-19 relief stimulus payments and personal protective equipment to members. The tribe also plans to renovate its office and update the kitchen in its cultural center.

The tribe also created a program that will provide free transportation to elders and others without vehicles. Gray said the tribe purchased vans and, people are available to drive members to Browning and Rocky Boy for health care needs.

Gray said his long-term goal is for the tribe to be economically self-sufficient. “That way we don’t have to wait for the federal government,” he said.

Navigating the federal recognition process is new for everyone, including tribal members.

As a result, Gray often fields questions, combats misinformation and discourages members from comparing the Little Shell to other tribes.

“There’s this stereotype that’s been perpetuated through time that the federal government just gives money to tribes. We do get some assistance, but we don’t get money to go buy someone a house, for example,” he said.

When the tribe gained federal recognition, Gray said one of the biggest misconceptions, which was advanced in media coverage, is that the federal government would give the tribe a reservation.

“The federal government does not just give us 200 acres,” he said. Rather, if the tribe purchases 200 acres, the land can enter a trust, meaning the tribe wouldn’t pay taxes on it.

“A reservation is not in the works,” Gray said, adding that the tribe has members in Hill, Blaine and Glacier counties. “It’s a big area, so we have to think about how does this look and how will this work in terms of infrastructure? It’s way too early to think about it.”

As the tribe makes historic progress, Gray urges patience.

“It takes time to build a tribal government from the ground up,” he said.

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