Landless legacy 

Little Shell Tribe fights for federal recognition

Montana artist Donna Loos' grandfather measured time by the redwing blackbirds. She never knew him, but the story, passed on from her father, John Baptiste Fleury, is one of the strongest ties Loos has to her Little Shell heritage.

Fleury left his family at age six to attend a Christian boarding school. This was sometime in the early 1900s, Loos says, and like most anxious children just starting school, Fleury asked when he would see his parents again.

"The father did not know how to say, 'In May,'" Loos, 77, explains. "So he said, 'When the redwing blackbirds start flying north, we'll see them in Mandan [North Dakota] and you'll see them here in this school. Then you'll know we're on our way.'"

Donna Loos, a local artist and Little Shell descendent, considers her father the strongest tie to her American Indian roots. The Little Shell were once again stalled last month in their 100-year fight for federal recognition. - PHOTO BY ALEX SAKARIASSEN
  • Photo by Alex Sakariassen
  • Donna Loos, a local artist and Little Shell descendent, considers her father the strongest tie to her American Indian roots. The Little Shell were once again stalled last month in their 100-year fight for federal recognition.

Loos thinks about that story often. She moved to Missoula last fall from Billings, where she worked as a grade school art teacher most of her life. She's half Little Shell, but she doesn't stay in touch with many Little Shell friends or relatives and has only attended a few tribal meetings in the last few years. Most of what she has are the stories.

Loos' cultural disconnect from most of her Little Shell ancestry is symptomatic of the hardship plaguing a historically landless and decentralized people. And the tribe's 100-year fight for federal recognition–punctuated by its first official petition in 1984–just got longer. Last month, the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) delayed its decision on acknowledging the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa another 60 days.

The BIA recognizes over 550 American Indian tribes in the United States, and holds an additional 332 petitions from groups seeking federal acknowledgment. The Little Shell Tribe stands out from the rest as unconventional, according to Little Shell President John Sinclair. They're mixed French and Indian descent, and their ancestral land is in North Dakota's Red River Valley–far from the tribal office in Great Falls.

The Little Shell's problems with the federal government date back to 1892, when Chief Thomas Little Shell refused to sign away lands in North Dakota for 10 cents an acre under the McCumber Agreement. Little Shell and his followers were subsequently denied enrollment on the Turtle Mountain Reservation.

Members of the Little Shell Band, as they were then known, migrated to Montana, settling along the Hi-Line or on the Rocky Mountain Front. Their population–ranging between 3,000 and 4,000–became scattered, landless and for a number of decades had no centralized government.

According to a 2000 report on the Little Shell Tribe issued by the BIA, arguments for federal recognition as an Indian tribe first rose in the 1930s, and some degree of demand has persisted since. The Little Shell claimed a significant victory in 2000 when the state recognized them as the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa of Montana. Rep. Denny Rehberg pushed legislation in 2007 and this year to pressure the BIA, and conducted a hearing in the House Natural Resources Committee in July to address repeated bureaucratic delays.

"I'll keep doing whatever it takes because it's well past time to get this done," Rehberg said in a statement last month. "These Montanans deserve our attention before another generation of the Little Shell Tribe members goes unrecognized."

Federal acknowledgement would open profitable doors for enrolled Little Shells, including access to government-funded health care and education, not to mention land.

"It's those three building blocks we'd be getting—health, housing and education," Sinclair says. "That's our push, because it's about poverty reduction. A lot of our people live in poverty and hopefully this will give them a chance to lift themselves up by their bootstraps."

The lack of tribal land, financial benefits and a unified community left the Little Shell a splintered and economically strained group. According to the most recent member census–conducted in 1992–the vast majority of Little Shell people live in Great Falls and Havre. Some settled on the Fort Belknap or Rocky Boy's reservations. Thirty percent now live out of state.

Sinclair says that cultural fragmentation will take generations to reverse, as evidenced by the distance between Loos and the Little Shell. Her father abandoned his family's itinerant lifestyle, choosing instead to root himself in white society. What little insight Loos has of her Little Shell blood comes from stories of Fleury's childhood, before his Christian schooling really took hold.

"He gave us a lot of what his life was like before his education," Loos says. "Then he had four years of reading and writing and became a very useful Americanized citizen. He joined the army for World War I when he was maybe 19, and that really Americanized him. It was sort of like graduate school for being an American citizen."

Loos says Fleury served in a cavalry unit in World War I. Afterwards, he worked as a ranch hand in Wyoming on the Hyatt Ranch, then owned by Wyoming Stock Growers Association President Sam Hyatt. There, Fleury met Loos' mother and assimilated into a wholly white community. The two had eight children before Fleury died in 1942. Loos was 10.

"He was one of those that wandered away from Indian life," Loos says, "and he never went back."

As for federal recognition, Sinclair isn't holding his breath that the BIA will reach a decision in 60 days. The best could happen, or the blackbirds could complete another migration before the Little Shell win.

"We're used to waiting," Sinclair says. "That's kind of what we're good at. Going last and waiting."

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