Updated at: 11/18/2012 12:35 PM
By MATTHEW BROWN
(AP) BILLIINGS, Mont. - Montana’s Little Shell tribe appeared poised to fade from history in recent years after it was denied federal government recognition, lost its financial support from the state and saw its elected leadership splinter.
But the past year has brought a sharp turnaround for the 4,500-member landless tribe that long has existed on society’s fringe.
Tribal enrollment is on the rise. Government grant money is flowing again. A Little Shell cultural and visitor center opened this month in Great Falls. And a new council, sworn in Sunday, is considering launching future business enterprises to make the tribe self-sufficient _ even as the battle for government recognition grinds on.
"We’re starting to operate as a tribe once again," said Gerald Gray, incoming chairman for the Little Shell Chippewa Tribe.
Hard times and misfortune are familiar to the Little Shell, who struggled to stay together through more than a century of poverty and dislocation.
Gray and others from the tribe said they are determined to shape a more hopeful future. That includes using the cultural center to strengthen their shared heritage and creating employment opportunities through business ventures and the tribal office.
Seventy-five new members have enrolled with the tribe in the past year, Gray said. Meanwhile, more than $190,000 in grants and other assistance came in to help pay for the visitor center, establish a wellness program and revive the tribe’s anti-tobacco program.
There’s still much work to be done, including re-establishing the tribe’s nonprofit status, cleaning up its enrollment records and trying to ensure the financial problems that crippled the tribe in recent years don’t recur.
But Bonnie Stevens, a registered member of the tribe from Helena, said the tribe’s ability to overcome its recent turmoil serves as a testament to its cohesion.
"We may fight, but in our own hearts and mind, we’re a tribe," she said. "If we weren’t a tribe, we’d just go our separate ways and scatter forever."
The tribe traces its ancestry to the Pembina Band of Chippewa Indians, who in the 1800s were under the leadership of Chief Little Shell when they were offered an unfair land deal that resulted in the band leaving North Dakota.
Government pledges to establish a reservation for the tribe in Montana never came through, and the Little Shell are now spread across the Northern Plains and central Canada. Many also call themselves Metis, a Canadian people with mixed European and Native American roots.
The tribe is recognized by the state of Montana. But its drive for federal acknowledgement by the Department of Interior, which dates at least to the 1970s, hit a major roadblock in 2009 when federal officials rejected the bid. The agency cited in part the tribe’s "departures from precedent" _ a reference to the Little Shell’s far-flung membership and its history of intermarriage with non-Indians and members of other tribes.
Also during that period, the tribe’s finances started to unravel when accounting problems surfaced under former chairman John Sinclair. The state of Montana suspended grants for a tobacco prevention program, and economic development funds were put on hold. That translated into an $867,000 financial hit for the Little Shell.
Political turmoil ensued, and dueling elections were held that resulted in two groups claiming to be the tribe’s rightful leader _ one under Sinclair’s control and another under the leadership of Great Falls businessman John Gilbert.
Gilbert’s side prevailed when the matter was finally settled last December by a three-judge panel of tribal law experts. Sinclair, who could not be reached for comment for this story, said at the time he was unlikely to run again.
The elections earlier this month were the first since the political dispute was settled. Former state Sen. Joe Troplia, who helped oversee the process, said that with the election the tribe appears to have finally quelled its internal rivalries.
Incoming chairman Gray, a vice president at a Billings advertising agency and vice chairman under Gilbert, said the strife during Sinclair’s tenure revealed weaknesses within the tribe that need to be fixed. That included a flawed constitution and few financial controls.
Gray said the tribe will be renewing its drive for federal recognition, which could bring housing and education assistance and other help in addition to land for a reservation.
Montana U.S. Sen. Jon Tester has introduced legislation to force the government to recognize the tribe. The Democrat’s bill will have to be reintroduced next year if it’s not acted on in the next few weeks.
Nicholas Vrooman, a Helena-based historian who wrote a book about the Little Shell that soon will be released, traces the tribe’s modern-day problems to a century of federal negligence.
Without a home to call their own or resources to maintain a functioning government, Vrooman said, the tribe has long been defined by outsiders by the strife and difficulties it has faced.
But Vrooman said those problems also have helped the Little Shell reach a new level of self-understanding _ including the realization they cannot wait for government help if they want to survive and move forward in the world.
"They don’t need the federal government to sanction them now _ to say they’re legitimate. They know who they are now," he said. "The struggle for their community is the proof of their community."
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)