The Little Shell Band of Chippewa Indians has gone through difficult times in recent years.
Its request for federal recognition rejected by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and was stalled in Congress.
Two factions of the tribe were involved in a bitter dispute. Each group claimed to be the legitimate tribal government.
Montana recognized the tribe, but because of the tumult, state funds were frozen and tribal programs were suspended.
For Gerald Gray, new tribal chair, the problems were even more complicated.
He was vice chairman of one of the tribal councils, but the other council “disenrolled him” meaning it stripped him of tribal membership, contending he did not meet Little Shell bloodline requirements.
Then a three-member trial court ruled in behalf of Gray’s Great Falls-based faction. Elections were held last week, and Gray was elected chairman of the 4,500-member tribe without opposition. He will be sworn in Sunday in what tribal members herald as a new beginning for the Little Shell.
Gray said today the dispute is over, and the tribe has a bright future.
“The council is a real close team, ” he said. Council members have great ideas for the tribe’s future, he said, and they are working on them now.
The tribe is cleaning up a fiscal mess left behind by the previous administration, he said, and is working on building a self-sustaining tribe.
Gray is vice president of an advertising agency his family owns in Billings, and is familiar with the Hi-Line, an area where many Little Shell live. His father was Rocky Boy school superintendent in the 1980s, and Gray himself taught at Box Elder School for three years.
The tribe held a powwow this year, and recently dedicated its new cultural center on Hill 57, which was once an area where Little Shell were forced to live by white Great Falls residents.
The opening of the center was important, Gray said, because it is important for the tribe’s history to be told. It was also important, he said, because many people from the opposition faction took part in the festivities.
Gray said the tribe has exciting plans for the future.
“The first goal is to work on federal recognition, ” he said.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., in congratulating the tribe on its election, noted that the first bill he introduced when he took his Senate seat in 2007, called for federal, recognition.
Gray said he is hopeful that the federal recognition legislation will be attached to a non-controversial bill that needs quick approval.
Gray blamed BIA bureaucracy and red tape for the rejection, and said Congress is the best hope for getting the needed recognition, which would open the door for federal funds.
Federal law says that along with the recognitions process, the tribe would get a 200 acre reservation. Gray said he doesn’t know exactly how that would work for what the tribe would do with the land. But he noted the tribe already owns land near Kalispell and it owns more than an acre where the cultural center is located.
Another major goal for the tribe is self-sufficiency, he said.
The tribe depends on grants for its projects, he said. But grants come and go, and he would like to see some other way to ensure a constant flow of revenue.
He said the tribe is looking at some retail opportunities that would employ Little Shell members and provide money to run tribal activities.
He said classes are planned to teach the Little Shell language. Many Native American languages are nearly extinct, he said, and the loss of the language would be tragic for the culture. Very few Little Shell know or use the language, he said, but they are excited about learning it.
Little Shell future
Gray is optimistic about the tribe’s future. He is encouraged by the spirit shown by members since the tumultuous dispute came to an end. People are anxious to take part in tribal activities.
Maintaining bloodline requirements will be a challenge, he said.
Now, people are eligible for membership if they have one-eighth or one-sixteenth Little Shell, he said.
“We had archaeologists come in during the 1980s, ” he said. “They warned us that if we had too strict requirements, we soon wouldn’t have any Little Shell. ”
There is considerable intermarriage between Little Shell and other tribes and Europeans, he said, in part because there is no reservation.
What’s next for tribe?
Gray said that while some people may still be thinking about the protracted dispute between the two factions, most tribal members and the leadership are thinking about the future.
”I want people to know that the dispute was front-page news, but that it is over, ” he said. ”We are looking to the future. Little Shell has a great future. ”