The U.S. Department of the Interior confirmed the worst fears of Montana's Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians on Tuesday, denying a 31-year-old request for federal recognition. The agency cited insufficient evidence to "meet the legal requirements of federal recognition," including a failure by the tribe to display political influence over its scattered and landless membership. Approval would have promised federal aid in housing, education and health care for the tribe's roughly 4,300 members.
Within hours of the federal agency's announcement, Montana's three congressmen issued statements of unanimous disapproval. Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus responded by immediately introducing the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians Restoration Act of 2009, which would supersede the Department of the Interior's decision and make recognition of the tribe a federal law.
From Tester: "Today’s decision was wrong for a tribe that’s been a part of Montana for many years. The Little Shell Tribe has worked hard to be recognized by the federal government. I’m disappointed by this decision, and Max and I will keep pushing hard to get the tribe the recognition it deserves."
From Baucus: "I do not agree with today’s decision from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, but this is not the end to the Little Shell’s fight. I am proud to co-sponsor a bill to give the Little Shell Tribe the recognition that they deserve. As Montanans and Americans, we recognize their history and heritage in our state and I support them."
From Rep. Denny Rehberg, who has sponsored similar legislation to bypass the Department of the Interior in 2007 and 2009: "Although this decision is disappointing, it’s hardly surprising from a federal agency that’s procrastinated for more than 30 years. This decision makes it all the more important to pass my legislation which would circumvent this red-tape once and for all and secure the Little Shell the recognition they have in Montana for almost a decade."
The agency had requested four extensions on its decision to recognize the Little Shell since summer 2008, repeatedly claiming that the tribe's request needed further legal review. Little Shell Tribal President John Sinclair told the Independent in August that the tribe is "used to waiting," and described the agency's final delay in late September as "a punch in the stomach."