Technically, the Little Shell Indian Tribe of Montana asked for federal recognition in 1978, the same year the U.S. Department of Interior adopted regulations governing the Federal Acknowledgement Process.
But tribal elders say their fight to regain status in the U.S. government’s eyes began in 1892, when federal recognition was withdrawn because Chief Little Shell wouldn’t sell reservation land to the government.
Even setting aside the historical record, 31 years is a long time to be left hanging over a question about your status as a sovereign entity – a status 564 tribes now enjoy but hundreds more seek.
The Little Shells’ wait ended Tuesday with Interior’s decision to turn down the tribe’s application for recognition. As a result, some 4,300 scattered members continue to be denied health and housing assistance that is available to Native Americans.
The tribe has two other options. They could challenge the ruling in court, or they could turn to Congress. Like southwest Washington’s Chinook Tribe, which also was turned down by the Department of Interior, the Little Shells are now counting on their state’s congressional delegation to restore their federal standing by law.
That route is not assured of success, and it may not be fast, but it’s likely to be downright swift compared with the Department of Interior’s notoriously plodding process.
It’s been nearly a decade since the U.S. General Accounting Office encouraged the Department of Interior to clarify and expedite the handling of applications for recognition. While the process lists seven criteria to justify recognition, the grounds for determining when they are met are vague enough to lead to conflicting interpretations.
Testifying before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in 2002, GAO’s director for natural resources and environment, Barry T. Hill, accurately predicted that a lack of uniformity in applying the criteria would lead many tribes to turn to the courts or Congress rather than the regulatory process.
It is past time for the Department of Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs to address those clarity and uniformity problems and to achieve more urgency in handling applications. The saga of the Little Shells and their lengthy – and continuing – quest to regain the status they lost more than a century ago underscores why.