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December 5, 2010

Little Shell recognition decision delayed

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After decades of waiting for federal recognition, the Little Shell Chippewa Tribe of Montana has been told to wait for another 60 days.

“We did get a letter from them (the Bureau of Indian Affairs) today, and there’s another delay,” said Little Shell President John Sinclair on Monday. “We’re not sure why — we assume it’s to review their findings.” Nedra Darling, a spokeswoman for the federal

Bureau of Indian Affairs, confirmed that the delay was needed to finalize the department’s legal review.

“The assistant secretary has the discretion to extend the period for the preparation of the final determination if warranted by the extent and nature of the evidence and arguments received during the response period,” she said Monday.

“Because the proposed finding contemplates a number of departures from precedent, the final determination requires a thorough legal review which is not yet complete,” she said.

The BIA proposes to render a decision on or before Sept. 25

Darling said, “It’s a high-stakes decision.”

Recognition would mean that the 4,300-member Little Shell Tribe, most of whom live in Great Falls or northcentral Montana, would be eligible to apply for federal services and funding to build clinics, schools and housing, said Darling.

The federal government officially recognizes 562 tribes.

Newly recognized tribes of 1,500 to 3,000 members can get $320,000 annually in federal start-up funds for up to three years, Darling said. Start-up funding for larger tribes such as the Little Shell is handled case by case.

Most of the recognition agreements were reached via treaties signed decades ago

In 1892, while Chief Little Shell and 112 families were hunting bison in Montana, a government “Indian agent” arranged to buy a portion of their Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota for use by white homesteaders, said Little Shell Executive Director Russell Boham.

Upon returning, Little Shell protested and his band was kicked out, leaving them unrecognized and landless, Boham said. They migrated to Montana, where two-thirds of today’s Little Shell remain, Boham said.

The government initially refused to grant the tribe’s request to be recognized because some members were Metis, or “mixed blood”

Darling said she can’t comment on why recognition for the Little Shell has dragged on for so long. The recognition office was formed in 1978 specifically to handle Indian recognition issues. Although the tribe had been seeking recognition for decades, the Little Shell submitted its formal petition in 1984.

She did say the tribe’s petition is large and complex. In every case, she said, delays can result from requests by the government for more documentation and because not all tribes have full-time research staffs. Each petition must meet seven stringent criteria, including evidence of links to a historical tribe, Darling said.

In 2000, the recognition office published a preliminary ruling in the Federal Register stating the Little Shell “exists as an Indian tribe,” but requested additional documentation before finalizing the decision, Boham said.

More than 250 Indian groups are still hoping to get recognized through the Office of Federal Recognition. Tribes in Louisiana, New York, California and Wisconsin also are awaiting decisions, while an additional eight petitions are awaiting consideration, Darling said.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, citing repeated delays in Little Shell recognition, called the process broken during a Senate Indian Affairs Committee meeting in February. And Rep. Denny Rehberg, seeking to circumvent the Bureau of Indian Affairs, has introduced legislation in Congress to recognize the Little Shell.

Sinclair testified on behalf of the tribe before the House Natural Resources Committee, which was hearing the legislation two weeks ago, and Rehberg told the committee that “We have the power to correct a historic injustice.”

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