This Week's Program: Sunday, January 1, 2006

Homeless for Over a Century, a Tribe Awaits U.S. Redemption

Here is an article that describes one tribe's struggle for federal recognition, highlighting the history of U.S. land theft that displaced the tribe and left them marginalized. The article also provides a good outline of how the the recognition process unfolds, including its shortcomings and inadequacies, and the reasons why tribes continue to seek it. By Jim Robbins The New York Times December 24, 2005

Here at the base of a rise called Hill 57, a steady, cold wind blows on a cloudless day as James Parker Shield and Russ Boham tell of life for the landless Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians.

The tribe, its land taken away more than a century ago, squatted in Great Falls and elsewhere in north-central Montana through the late 1960's, living as many as 12 to a tar-paper shack without plumbing, and scavenging at the dump for scrap metal, rags and food. Parents often ran afoul of state child welfare officials. ''They'd see you sleeping in a car body and take you away from your family,'' said Mr. Boham, who, like Mr. Shield, was among those shipped to the state orphanage when he was a child.

Today, with most of its members living in public housing around Great Falls, Mr. Shield and Mr. Boham are leading a protracted fight for government recognition of the tribe. Recognition would allow their people to gain control of federal money to buy land here for a tribal headquarters and housing, and to win back a measure of dignity.

The 112 families led by Chief Little Shell lost their North Dakota homeland to the government in 1892 when a chief of the Pembina Chippewa signed away their rights to it, without their authority and in their absence. The Little Shell had left home, in the Turtle Mountain area, to go hunting, and an Indian agent forced the other Chippewa to accept the Ten Cent Treaty -- so called by Indians because it bought about 10 million acres of Chippewa land, including that of the Little Shell, for a million dollars.

Ever since, the Little Shell have known only diaspora. Most came to Montana, where they lived near dumps and on the streets of Great Falls, Helena and other towns. In 1896, angry whites asked the government to do something about them, and the Army rounded them up at gunpoint, put them on boxcars and shipped them to Canada. ''Most of them made their way back,'' said Mr. Shield, the vice president of the tribal council, which Mr. Boham serves as assistant.

The three other surviving Chippewa tribes from the Turtle Mountain area -- the Turtle Mountain, the White Earth and the Rocky Boy -- were all less scattered and received federal recognition over time; they now have reservations. But the 4,500 or so Little Shell still await official recognition from the Office of Federal Acknowledgment at the Interior Department, a quest for which they have gained the support not only of other tribes in Montana but also of the Montana governor's office, the State Legislature and Cascade County, which includes Great Falls.

The recognition process was created by the government in 1978 to make reparations to tribes that had been forced to move from place to place throughout American history. There are now 562 federally recognized tribes in the United States. Roughly 220 others have expressed interest in recognition, but such efforts are often strongly opposed. Some of that opposition comes from tribes, already recognized, that are eager to protect their vast casino gambling income, and from states that do not want recognized tribes within their borders, because a bid for recognition is occasionally a ploy of relatively few Indians with dubious historical ties simply to open a new casino. ''We're running into the ripple effects of gaming and politics,'' Mr. Shield contended. ''But the gaming has nothing to do with us. If you take a hard look at the gaming opportunities in Montana, there's no market and no population. We want a home.''

James E. Cason, an associate deputy interior secretary who oversees Indian affairs, denied that the gambling issue had been a factor in the case of the Little Shell, who first applied for recognition in 1984, who received preliminary approval in 2000 and who have spent much of the time since then engaged in assembling the documentation needed for final approval. (The final draft of their petition was sent to the government earlier this year.) ''It doesn't have anything to do with gaming -- it's a non issue,'' Mr. Cason said, adding that the Little Shell had been ''in control of this process the last five years and have asked for extensions.'' With the final draft now in hand, ''we will try to do it as expeditiously as we can,'' he said.

But the recognition process has long been criticized by Indians as unwieldy, partly because of a requirement for extensive documentation that proves they have acted as a tribe politically and culturally over the last two centuries. ''It's extremely onerous, almost prohibitively so,'' said Kim Gottschalk, a lawyer for the Native American Rights Fund, a nonprofit law firm based in Boulder, Colorado, that is researching the Little Shell claim. The fund estimates that it has spent more than $1 million in out-of-pocket expenses on the petition, not counting lawyers' pay.

Kevin Gover, a Pawnee Indian who was assistant interior secretary for Indian affairs from 1997 to 2000 and is now a law professor at Arizona State University, is also critical of the recognition program. ''They've been around for 30 years,'' he said, ''and they've never managed to approve more than two a year.'' Professor Gover said the Office of Federal Acknowledgment demanded far too much documentation, ''and that is especially a problem for tribes like the Little Shell,'' who lived in a remote area and have no written records from the period.

The Little Shell band is not claiming land. But with $3.5 million held in trust for it by the federal government until recognition is achieved, it would buy 200 acres of farmland here in Cascade County, where most tribal members live, and build a headquarters, a clinic and housing. In November, Cascade County commissioners passed a resolution calling for the county to be the home base of the tribe, even though that would mean the removal of 200 acres from the tax base.

"We support them moving forward with official recognition,'' said Commissioner Lance Olson. ''But if they aren't going to recognize them, they should tell them.'' Federal recognition would also allow the Little Shell to apply for minority contracts and to have a government-to-government relationship with Washington. ''That means they could no longer treat us,'' Mr. Shield said, ''like someone they don't want to admit they fathered.''