Robert Struckman, Special to The Denver Post
After 109 years, the Little Shell Ojibwa/Chippewa are officially a tribe again.
The U.S. Interior Department signed an order granting federal recognition of the tribe, which has about 4,000 members, said Tribal Chairman Tim Zimmerman, of Billings, Montana.
Until the mid-1800s, ancestors of the Little Shells lived in the western Great Lakes area. As European settlements encroached upon their territory in the 1800s, they moved west to hunt buffalo and found themselves living on the small Turtle Mountain reservation in North Dakota. Facing starvation as The Buffalo Herds Disappeared, the tribe broke into factions in the 1870s, with some following Thomas Little Shell into Montana, some staying at Turtle Mountain and some going north to Canada.
Poor timing and rotten deals caused the Little Shell Tribe to lose its land and federal status, Zimmerman said.
The problems began in 1892 when an Indian agent came to the tribe’s home, North Dakota’s Turtle Mountain Reservation. Chief Thomas Little Shell was away in Montana with 112 other families hunting buffalo. In their absence, tribal rolls were cut and a million acres of the tribe’s land was sold for .10 cents an acre. When he returned, Little Shell refused to take part in the deal, said Ed Lavenger, an elder with the Little Shell Tribe who lives in Billings.
The reservation's Indian agent responded by arbitrarily cutting the tribal rolls in half, dividing families and clans. Small groups of families, usually numbering not more than 100, settled in remote areas across the north and east portions of Montana. They never blended into non-Indian culture, but without the aid and legitimacy that came with federal recognition, their tribal traditions suffered, too.
“He was protesting the dropping of so many names from the rolls,” Lavenger said. “It was all or none.”
With no land, the tribe scattered. In 1896, 600 of the landless Indians were captured by soldiers, put into boxcars and dropped off at the Canadian border. That winter, they walked back, living in squalid shacks in “moccassin flats” areas outside of towns along the Hi-Line and the eastern front of the Rocky Mountains, Lavenger said.
“We are a scattered tribe. We weren’t claimed by the whites. We weren’t claimed by the full bloods,” Lavenger said. “They used to call us persons with no souls. Now at least we have an identity.”
Not counting the Little Shell Tribe, Montana has 11 federally recognized tribes and seven reservations. Adjusting to life with the whites was tough enough, Lavenger said, but at least the other tribes in the state had their own land.
Only a handful of the tribe's 4,000 members still speak their native language - almost none on the native speakers born after 1934, according to Little Shell anthropologists.
The tribe's leaders have worked steadily for federal recognition since 1892; many times it seemed just around the corner. Rocky Boy, Montana's seventh reservation, was established in 1917 on a former military reserve as a home for all of Montana's landless Indians. It proved to be big enough only for the Rocky Boy Chippewa and Cree. More land was purchased near Great Falls in the late 1930s, but local opposition killed the plan to use it as a reservation.
About 25 years ago, the Little Shells finally incorporated as a nonprofit organization and joined 221 groups who have indicated their intent to pursue federal recognition. Until today only 15 have succeeded. The Little Shell Tribe is the sixteenth.
"My Father's brother, myUncle, spent nearly sixty of his eighty-four years in the desert southwest, having moved to the Taos, Santa Fe, New Mexico area sometime in his twentys. I was quite young when my mother died and when my Father remarried my new mother, or Stepmother as the case may be, brought my Uncle in to 'oversee' me. My Uncle had been married at one time as well, but, although he maintained a loosly related association with his wife, he was for all practical purposes, divorced. The woman he was separated from was a Native American of the Little Shell Plains Ojibwe and a fourth level Midewiwin, a super-secret Ojibwe Medicine Society. I had met her in passing and for the most part she never payed much attention to me one way or the other, although I sensed something very "different" about her. She reminded me of a lightning or thunderstorm raging in the distant mountains. You only felt safe because you weren't there, although you knew if you were, the storm had the power to wash you away or destroy you by the might of it all." (see)
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