For All My Relations

The Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians: Federal Recognition

It's late in the evening of Friday, December 20, and it's dark outside. It’s too warm for this Hibernal Solstice, and a steady rain spattering my window ensures that, barring some kind of meteorological miracle, we won't be having much of a white Christmas in Missoula this year. 

I am an enrolled member of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians. I am receiving a stream of congratulatory emails and text messages from friends and well-wishers, because at 6:08pm Mountain Time, President Donald Trump signed the $738 billion defense bill, aka the National Defense Authorization Act, which includes an attachment called the Little Shell Restoration Act. This rider to the NDAA grants my tribe federal recognition. It has been a fight over 100 years in winning, but we have managed to outlast all of our opponents. We endured. It is what we do.

I could have watched a livestream of the event, of the actual signing, but I chose not to. I'm happy for my tribe, but I also have deeply-mixed feelings. The entire process is a bitter irony when one considers that the Little Shell will finally "get" federal "recognition" at the behest of a spending bill for a military that has only tried to eradicate us, signed by a president actively pursuing the very policies that disenrolled and dehumanized our ancestors, and made us "landless Indians" in the first place. I choose not to participate in the brand of political theater that Trump’s broadcast signing of the bill exemplifies.

Consider the history of our people. Consider the Cree Deportation Act of 1896. This act came in the wake of the 1885 North-West Rebellion in Canada—the Louis Riel rebellion—where Métis people rose up against the Canadian government in a bid for self-governance and were subsequently crushed. Many Métis people fled persecution in Canada across the Medicine Line into the United States. This population included Cree people who had no involvement with the Riel Rebellion but were being pursued and treated with as if they had, based on their own legitimate grievances with the Canadian government. All were suffering and rapidly becoming landless.

The Cree Deportation Act of 1896 was an effort by the American federal government to solve the lingering "Indian problem" on the Northern Plains once and for all. Money was allocated and soldiers operating out of Fort Assiniboine near Havre, Montana—the Tenth Cavalry Regiment, commonly known as the African American "Buffalo Soldiers”—under the command of first lieutenant John J. Pershing were tasked with rounding up any Cree Indians they could find for deportation to Canada. They were loaded on rail cars and shipped by train to Lethbridge. When the money for paying the railroad ran out the deportations continued, only now these Indians were force-marched to Canada on foot from where they lived near places like Great Falls, Missoula, the Flathead Reservation and others. Homes were taken. Families were broken. Death dogged their footsteps along the way. 

Many of the Indians so deported had been inside the American border all along and had had no direct involvement with events in Canada. That didn't matter, as they were branded a "nuisance" no matter where they were from. Never mind that these were a people who had been on this land for centuries and had no concept of this new border between settler nations. Never mind that their way of life, their land and homes, their resources, had been illegally taken by foreign invaders.

This is all relevant because this very circumstance is happening again, today. The same defense bill that grants the Little Shell federal recognition includes funding for construction of a border wall along the American border with Mexico. Meanwhile people—families—fleeing persecution in their own countries are being met in America with imprisonment. They are separated and herded into cages. Children are taken from their parents. These refugees are dying on our soil, or being sent back to persecution and death on their own. People who have been in America for years are being caught up in this dragnet as well, including American citizens.

How is what we are doing in America now to others any different than what has been done to us as Chippewa-Cree/Métis people? How are these people not being made to suffer in the same ways our very families have been made to suffer? These are indigenous people, just like we are, just as we have always been. They deserve our love and compassion.

We Little Shell owe a debt of gratitude to the Montana delegation of representatives in Washington, D.C.: Senators Jon Tester and Steve Daines, as well as Representative Greg Gianforte. Without their efforts we would not be celebrating this long-awaited moment. Our representatives were able to finish a job started many, many years ago by people who did not live to see their efforts rewarded. But we also need to recognize that these three elected men were simply doing their jobs. Getting us our recognition was the right thing to do for a large group of Montana citizens they have been charged to represent.

But we are a sovereign nation who are now in a position to deal in strength with another nation who surrounds us on all sides. A nation we must never forget rarely has our best interests in mind. We must be vigilant, and we must be wary. Senator Daines is up for reelection and wants our votes. Representative Gianforte is running for governor and wants our votes. These men supported us, but we don’t owe them anything. Both men have been staunch supporters at every turn of the Trump Administration, an administration that shows no signs of changing policy when it comes to its dealing with the poor and persecuted people of the world, within our borders or beyond them. Don’t think for a moment that Trump himself knowns anything of us or even cares beyond our votes. He is the latest representation of the kind of imperialist leader that has been trying to eliminate us since settler boots first set foot on North America.

My great grandmother, Tillie Rose Doney, was born on January 2, 1896. What were the early years of her life like, dodging this kind of deportation? What was her entire life like, a woman I only met once, who raised a family in Roy, Montana and barely spoke English? It couldn’t have been easy in any way, yet she too endured until her death in 1989. How would she have celebrated this moment?

If we believe our ancestors are still among us, are observing with love and curiosity to see what we do next, we must ask ourselves: who will the Little Shell be? What kind of nation do we want to be? How do we want to show ourselves to the world? Do we want to ally ourselves with an administration that creates suffering, or does its best to relieve it? We have a unique opportunity to create ourselves, and that is a gift. I hope we remember what was done to us, and do all we can to make sure no other people must endure what we have. I hope when it comes time to make these decisions, we all make the right ones.

Our ancestors are watching.

This is my first edition of a sub stack newsletter. My friend Anne Helen Peterson has a great one, and I urge any people interested in smart writing to check it out. Meanwhile, I’m not sure what I’m going to do here, besides maybe do more. It may come to replace the blog portion of my website, who knows. I’ll be in touch….