BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — A U.S. Senate committee on Wednesday advanced a bill that would give federal recognition to Montana's Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians following a decades-long effort.
The Senate Indian Affairs Committee approved the measure sponsored by Montana's two U.S. senators by voice vote on Wednesday.
Recognition would both validate the Little Shell's identity as a tribe and make it's roughly 6,000 members eligible for government benefits ranging from education to health care. The bill also would require the U.S. Department of the Interior to acquire 200 acres for the Little Shell that could be used for a tribal government center, housing or other purposes.
The tribe has been without a recognized homeland since the late 1800s, when Chief Little Shell and his followers in North Dakota broke off treaty negotiations with the U.S. government. Tribal members later settled in Montana and Canada and are now scattered across the U.S. Northern Plains states and central Canada. Most live in Montana.
The Interior Department gave preliminary approval to recognizing the Little Shell in 2000 but rescinded the move in 2009. The agency denied recognition for the Little Shell again in 2013.
The state of Montana recognized the tribe in 2000.
Montana Sen. Steve Daines said the Little Shell's frustrations getting tribal recognition demonstrate that the federal recognition process is broken. Daines told lawmakers during a Wednesday committee hearing that the approval of the recognition bill was shadowed by the recent death of Little Shell tribal council member Shawn Gilbert.
"While he lost his fight with cancer, I intend to see he doesn't lose his fight for his people," Daines said.
The Little Shell evolved from a group of mixed-blood French and Indian hunters and trappers affiliated with the historical Pembina Band of Chippewa Indians.
Past legislation in Congress calling for recognition of the tribe has been approved at the committee level but never by the full House or Senate.
If Congress again does not act, Tribal Chairman Gerald Gray said President Donald Trump's nominee for Interior secretary, Montana U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, could waive department rules to acknowledge the tribe. Zinke has supported the Little Shell's tribal recognition efforts.
Tribal leaders first petitioned for recognition through the Interior Department in 1978. Gray and other members trace their other attempts back to the 1860s, when the Pembina Band of Chippewa signed a treaty with the U.S. government.
There are 567 recognized Native American tribes in the United States.
Rules for tribal recognitions were eased in 2015 and a new petition from the Little Shell is pending with the Interior Department.
Only one tribe has been recognized since the rules were changed — the Pawmunkey Tribe of Virginia. Petitions from nine others are pending, including the Little Shell.
The bill for the Little Shell Tribe was co-sponsored by Montana Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat.