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Federal recognition for Montana’s Little Shell Band of Chippewa Cree Indians has been added to a must-pass U.S. defense bill, which the state’s congressional delegation says could end the decades-long struggle for tribal rights.

Since they lack federal recognition, the Little Shell have never received basic treaty rights offered to other American Indian tribes. Montana’s congressional delegation has, with limited progress, tried for years to get Congress to recognize the tribe.

The next best chance at recognition will come with a vote on the National Defense Reauthorization Act. It’s a must-pass bill that sets U.S. defense funding levels and establishes spending priorities like pay raises for the military. Sens. Jon Tester, a Democrat, and Steve Daines, a Republican convinced Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to add the Little Shell language, on the condition that Daines be listed as the lead sponsor. Daines is up for re-election in 2020.

“I’ll take McConnell at his word when he sent the email that said, ‘Hey, if you put Steve at the top of the list we can get this done,’ " Tester said. "I said ‘Hey, go ahead and do it. It’s important.’ We’re getting it done."

Tester said recognition for the Little Shell was the bill he proposed first as a new senator in 2007. He said the current request is the best chance at recognition the Little Shell have had. There have been several attempts in the Senate by the Montana delegation. Each effort won support in committee but failed to get a vote by the full Senate.

“Great news today for Montana’s Little Shell Tribe,” Daines said in a press release. “After decades of fighting for the federal recognition they deserved, we’re one step closer to making it a reality. I’m honored to have worked to get this included in the must-pass NDAA, and will continue to work until it’s signed into law.”

The House version of the National Defense Authorization Act will include Little Shell recognition language, as well. Syncing the language in the House and Senate versions of the bill was the only way to get the provision passed by both chambers.

However, in March the Democratic House easily passed a bill by Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., to get the Little Shell recognized. The March vote was only the second time the Little Shell received a floor vote in Congress. A Gianforte bill for Little Shell recognition also passed in September 2018, when Republicans controlled the House.

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The March bill passed by the House would have given the Little Shell 200 acres of land, treaty health care benefits, education support and federal economic development programs. There are 5,400 known members of the Montana Band of Chippewa Cree Indians.

“This is another important step for the Little Shell Tribe in their quest for federal recognition,” Gianforte said in a press release. "After successfully guiding the bill through the House last September, and again in March, I am thankful the Senate is taking up their worthy cause. I appreciate the dedication and determination of Chairman (Gerald) Gray and the Little Shell people throughout this process, and I will continue to push for the recognition they deserve."

It’s been a heavy lift getting congressional votes for Little Shell recognition. In the House, Republicans Denny Rehberg, Daines, Ryan Zinke and Gianforte all sponsored bills for the tribe. In the Senate, Democrats Tester and Max Baucus co-sponsored no fewer than four Little Shell bills. Daines and Tester have co-sponsored no fewer than three bills. At times the legislation has been blocked by a single senator’s objections when unanimous consent was needed.

“They’ve gotten recognized and then gotten the recognition rescinded. I don’t know why,” Tester said. “Since I’ve been here, there have been tribes in Virginia that have gotten recognition and the Little Shell haven’t. So, I think the paperwork is there, the lineage is there to show that these folks deserve recognition.”

The tribe has sought recognition for more than 70 years, Tester said. There’s plenty of blame to go around for why the acknowledgement hasn’t been made.

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