U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell is calling for the Little Shell Tribe of Montana to have another chance at federal recognition after it was preliminarily approved under the Clinton administration, delayed for eight years under the George W. Bush administration, and then denied in 2009 by the Obama administration.
Tribal citizens are cautiously optimistic, as they have been down this potentially positive road before only to find themselves lost in the continuing bureaucratic maze that is the federal recognition process for tribes today. It is a maze that never seems to get any easier, even after several congressional inquiries in recent years, as well as promises from multiple administrations to streamline the process.
“It feels like someone in D.C. is finally listening and realizes that the Little Shell Tribe rightfully deserves to be [federally] recognized,” said Gerald Gray, chairman of the tribe, which has been recognized by the state of Montana since 2003. “I’m very confident that we will be finally recognized; we will not stop the fight until we are recognized as we have been a tribe, are a tribe and will always be a tribe.”
Jewell’s staff says she is indeed listening to the tribe’s desire to be recognized, having issued a letter September 16 asking Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn to re-examine the case on due process and burden of proof grounds.
Jewell said in her letter that the Interior Board of Indian Appeals denied the Little Shell bid to have the 2009 denial overturned, but it also identified “five alleged grounds for reconsideration over which it says it does not have jurisdiction,” so Jewell is using her authority to request that Washburn reconsider the Little Shell petition.
The decision to deny under the Obama administration was originally made by George Skibine, former Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, in October 2009 after then-Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Larry EchoHawk recused himself from deciding. Skibine said at the time that the tribe did not satisfy three of seven criteria for acknowledgment, specifically the requirements that a tribe has been identified as an Indian entity on a substantially continuous basis at least since 1900; comprises a distinct community since historical times and maintains significant social relationships and interaction as part of a distinct community; and maintains political influence over a community of its members or over communities that combined into the petitioner.
Kevin Gover, who preliminarily approved recognition for the tribe when he served as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs under the Clinton administration, said he is “pleased that the Secretary has asked that the decision be reconsidered.”
Indian affairs experts expect Congress to be watching the administration’s process closely, as some legislators strongly believe that Little Shell should have been recognized long ago.
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana) is one legislator who has the Little Shell Tribe’s back. The first piece of legislation he introduced upon joining Congress in 2007 was a bill to grant federal recognition to the tribe, and he has carried the same bill during each Congress over the last seven years. When he learned that Jewell was reconsidering their recognition, he was pleased, to say the least.
“This is long-awaited welcome news,” Tester told Indian Country Today Media Network. “Since my first days in the United States Senate, I've fought to bring federal recognition for the Little Shell. I appreciate Secretary Jewell's leadership and look forward to a new outcome for the Little Shell Tribe.”
Beyond Jewell, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs will hold a hearing October 30 to consider congressional federal recognition for the Little Shell, along with six Virginia tribes and the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina. All of these tribes have long been providing historical evidence that they should be legally recognized by the federal government, but some federal officials have in the past successfully blocked their efforts over concerns that the tribes could pursue gaming. Some of the tribes have gone so far as to say they would not allow gaming if recognized, but that has not appeased federal officials to date.
Gray, tired of all the hoops, said the process of tribal federal recognition in this day and age is grueling.
“This process has been very tiring especially for many tribal members who have worked extremely hard in the attempt to gain federal recognition; many of these individuals have passed on, and it’s sad to see that they will never get to see the day of federal recognition,” Gray said. “It is also very tiring in trying to constantly figure out what is going through the minds in D.C. when we all know that all the facts and proof are there.”