Debate over a Montana House resolution on the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians turned sour last week, leading tribal legislators to demand apologies from two lawmakers who made disparaging remarks about reservation life. The controversy stems from House Resolution 11, which urges the federal government to formally recognize the landless tribe, now headquartered in Great Falls. The tribe’s saga began 109 years ago when a group of Chippewa-Cree pushed onto North Dakota’s Turtle Mountain Reservation protesting a federal government move that reduced their rolls and sold some of their land without their consent. Instead of validating the decree, Chief Thomas Little Shell and his followers left the reservation and dispersed in protest.
U.S. soldiers responded in 1896 by forcing about 600 members of the tribe into boxcars and dumping them off on the Montana-Canada border. In the decades since, they fended for themselves along the Hi-Line, on Hill 57 in Great Falls and in other towns around the region.
The tribe, which now numbers about 3,700 members, has been fighting for years for new federal recognition, which would make them eligible for education, housing and health services. Last May, the Department of Interior issued a preliminary ruling granting recognition. But a six-month probation period has now expired, a new Republican president is in office, and tribal members are unsure of their future. The non-binding HR 11 is designed to spur the process.
The House passed the resolution 100-0 last month, but the proposal ran into trouble last Thursday while being debated in the Senate. Sen. Ric Holden (R-Glendive) pressed for more details about the tribe and whether they have a treaty with the federal government. Holden, assuming the Little Shell will want their own reservation, demanded to know where they’d get the land.
“Is my ranch part of their reservation, or is downtown Great Falls going to have to give up some land for a court building?,” he asked. “I don’t know where these people live or where they’re at, and I can understand their plight. But the whole idea of us recognizing another tribal government in Montana does not seem to be to be good public policy.
“We already have numerous problems in this state trying to rectify ourselves with the seven tribal governments we already have,” Holden continued. “I don’t think it makes good public policy, the way this resolution states, to advance another one of these sovereign nations in Montana. We don’t know where these people are, who they are, or how much dollars they want from us to pay for health care, or whatever. I don’t think the people of Montana have broad-based merit for establishing another reservation in this state.”
Holden also said he believes reservations are a breeding ground for social ills.
“I don’t think the children that are born into that reservation system we create are truly going to be beneficiaries of what we are doing...,” he said. “The fact is, I don’t know anybody who has ever said, ‘I can’t wait to move back to the reservation.’ Sad, but true.”
Senate Minority Leader Steve Doherty (D-Great Falls) told Holden he’s proud to have the Little Shells based in his district. The government made promises to the tribe, then backed out on its word, he said. While the long wait for formal recognition “might be rushing it in Glendive,” the tribe deserves fair treatment, he said. He added that recognition would add jobs and income to the area’s economy.
But Sen. Ed Butcher (R-Winifred) said he’s worried that giving federal legitimacy to the tribe will result in more problems.
“I’m concerned when you start putting people in bondage, and this is one of the things we’re really looking at here—ghettos,” he said. “And, unfortunately, the reservation is a ghetto, and those people are in bondage on that piece of land.” Butcher, a former school teacher who holds a master’s degree in anthropology, added that other ethnic groups in America are landless, too, but they’ve learned to assimilate.
“What we’re saying here is that it’s our tax dollars [that will support it], rather than them going out and integrating into our system and our society,” he said. “We are bring these people into the same bondage that the people on the reservations, unfortunately, constantly, find themselves locked into.”
Sen. Jack Wells (R-Bozeman) also waded into the fray by saying he was concerned about Indian alcohol abuse and tribal members seeking welfare. “I think my Irish culture should be recognized,” he said. “But I don’t want a handout for it, I just want to be recognized. I think we ought to honor the treaty. It’s unfortunate it does require some welfare, but I guess we ought to recognize these folks.”
The resolution eventually passed on a 43-3 margin, with Holden, Butcher and Sen. Ken Miller (R-Laurel) voting against it. But the discourse prompted a letter from the Legislature’s six tribal lawmakers to Gov. Judy Martz and top House and Senate leaders seeking explanations and apologies.
In interviews Monday, Holden and Butcher said they didn’t mean any harm with their remarks, but they have no plans to change them.
“I don’t think that when you debate the merits of a bill or the public policy it tries to set up that it requires an apology,” Holden explained. Butcher, meanwhile, said his comments were meant as “constructive criticism.”
“I’m kind of a plain speaker,” he said. “Hopefully, I can be part of a solution, not part of the problem. I don’t have an ax to grind with anyone. I have absolutely no negative feelings toward Native Americans.” #