After Federal Recognition Is Denied: "Why Didn't They Just Tell Us 'No' 30 Years Ago?"

You have your community and your place to go.  We don't have that.  But we're still together…


They've got their rules, and you've got to fit into the slot.   But we know who we are.


It kind of hurts, naturally, but it's not the end of the line…

These sentiments were expressed by members of Montana's Little Shell Tribe, after receiving notice this week that their petition for federal recognition had been denied – more than 30 years after it was first filed.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs’ 242-page rejection decision acknowledged that 89 percent of the Little Shell can trace their lineage to the Pembina Band of Chippewa Indians, but stated the Little Shell had failed to show enough "cohesion" during the early 1900s, after many of the Tribe's members had been uprooted and migrated between northern Montana and southern Canada. The Tribe has not had a secure homeland since the late 1860s, when Chief Little Shell and his people were excluded from a federal treaty signed with related Tribes.

As discussed previously on this site, the BIA uses an extremely complex and subjective set of criteria in analyzing petitions for federal recognition. For Little Shell, the BIA decided that members of the Tribe in Montana lived primarily in "already existing, largely multiethnic settlements." According to the BIA, "In none of these multiethnic settlements did the petitioner's ancestors constitute a majority or even a significant percentage of the population." Little Shell’s petition was thus denied based on a perceived lack of social and political cohesion.

For Tribes like Little Shell, the next step in the struggle for recognition is to seek legislative backing in Congress, in the hope that recognition can be obtained through pressure and laws enacted by elected representatives. Hopes for progress in this area were briefly raised by the announcement of President Obama's upcoming Tribal Nations conference in November. Unfortunately, invitations to the event were only sent to a select group of Tribes – those that already possess federal recognition.