Little Shells denied Bureau of Indian Affairs recognition, await congressional action
WASHINGTON – The BIA has denied the petition of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians of Montana to become federally recognized, leaving the tribe with the difficult task of fighting for recognition from Congress.
The denial came after months of delays from Obama administration officials and years of waiting by desperate tribal members.
George T. Skibine, acting principal deputy assistant secretary-Indian affairs with the Interior, made the announcement Oct. 27.
“Though the Little Shell cannot meet the mandatory criteria for federal acknowledgment through Interior’s administrative process, the U.S. Congress has the authority to recognize the Little Shell under pending legislation,” Skibine said.
John Sinclair, chairman of the tribe, said the congressional route will be very difficult, as there are many members of Congress to convince.
Federal recognition allows Indian tribes to establish a government-to-government relationship with the United States, making federal protection, services and benefits available.
Officials with the Clinton administration supported the tribe’s recognition in 2000, then the George W. Bush administration delayed a determination.
Current Interior officials said there was not enough evidence for the tribe to meet the legal requirements for federal recognition. They said the tribe didn’t satisfy three of the seven mandatory 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.
The decision has stunned many tribal members, including Sinclair.
“It’s disappointing,” he said. “This was not the decision we hoped for.”
The petitioning group was made up of 4,332 members who live in Montana as well as outside of the state.
Members have long claimed that their ancestors originated as part of the historical Pembina Band of Chippewa Indians in the mid-19th century and then evolved into a separate group of mixed Indian ancestry in Montana by the early 20th century.
Interior’s new decision goes against a 2000 proposed finding from the department recommending acknowledgment of the Little Shell as an Indian tribe. The department said at the time that additional evidence could create a different factual record and provide more factual support to a final decision.
“This final determination concludes, however, that the petitioner’s response to the proposed finding does not present sufficient additional evidence or argument that justifies the proposed finding’s contemplated departures from precedent,” according to a statement from the department.
Officials said evidence shows external observers identified the petitioner as an Indian entity only since 1935, not 1900, as required by the regulations.
They said, too, that evidence demonstrates the tribe has not comprised a distinct community since historical times. Evidence also did not demonstrate that the tribe maintained political influence over a community of its members at any time or over communities that combined into the petitioner.
Interior’s decision is final and effective 90 days after publication of a notice in the federal register, unless the tribe or any interested party requests reconsideration with the Interior Board of Indian Appeals.
Only one tribe – the Mohegan Tribe of Connecticut – has previously won an appeal.
With those slim odds, the tribe is expected to push for congressional action to gain federal recognition.
At least two members of Congress from Montana – Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester – are supportive. They have jointly introduced a bill, known as S.1936, to recognize the tribe.
Both lawmakers were disappointed that the BIA denied recognition, they believe the tribe deserves federal status, especially after waiting more than 100 years.
Rep. Denny Rehberg of Montana has previously introduced H.R.3120, the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians Restoration Act of 2009. The legislation had not moved as of press time.
The state of Montana recognized the tribe nine years ago.
Earlier this year, Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Larry EchoHawk recused himself from deciding the tribe’s fate because the tribe has been represented by the Native American Rights Fund, an organization run by his brother.
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