Little Shell

Liminal Existence

The final throes of seeking federal acknowledgement

Story by Christopher Reed, photos by Matt Roberts

Pakama! Pakama!”

Jay Jarvis didn’t speak Cree, but even at nine years old he heard those words often enough to know what they meant: He was in for a fight. Jarvis needed water for his family and he planned to get it, even as the Snakeskin boys that lived at the bottom of Hill 57 convinced each other: “Hit him! Hit him!”

“So we ended up fighting,” Jarvis said, as if that was the only choice. “We ended up fighting a lot. Not big terrible fights, just little kid fights. But still, when you’re punching each other – you know, hate involved – that ain’t good.”

Jarvis, 68, grew up on Hill 57 as a member of the Little Shell Band of Chippewa Indians. Jarvis (pronounced Jar-vee) is a European last name. Early fur traders intermarried with Native Americans in the Great Lakes region, bringing European technologies while adopting aboriginal ways of life. The Little Shell band arose from a polyethnic combination of Chippewa-Cree Native Americans and Europeans, typically French, Irish and Scottish.

This heritage made Little Shell people too white for the Native Americans and too Native American for the whites.

“We were half-breeds to them,” Jarvis remembered. “And when you gotta fight to get to the bus, and then once you get to school you gotta fight a different fight, you don’t know where you’re at. Don’t know where you belong.”


The settling of the American West left the Little Shell without land to call its own. Unlike Montana’s other tribal nations, the Little Shell Band of Chippewa is not receive federally recognized, despite pushing for it since treaty talks in the late 1800s.

Recent changes to the Bureau of Indian Affairs recognition process could affect the Little Shell, which has been recognized by the state of Montana as a tribe since 2006, in two ways. It could open the door to federal recognition as it loosened some of the requirements of tribes seeking acknowledgement, it could also close the door on recognition, as the revised policy only allows tribes one attempt to petition.

After a history rife with the sort of turmoil Jarvis experienced because of its unresolved tribal status, the tribe’s forthcoming petition is the Little Shell’s last chance to be recognized by the BIA.

However, the tribe could still be recognized via congressional action.

Kevin Washburn, a BIA official who drafted the new recognition requirements, said recognition has been an uphill battle for the Little Shell.

“They have not been successful through the administrative process,” he said. “So that would suggest to me that they would have a better chance through the congressional route.”

As it stands, the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians Restoration Act of 2015, a bill that would grant the 5,400-member tribe federal recognition along with 200 acres of tribal lands, is currently in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. For the Little Shell to become the 31st congressionally recognized tribe, identical bills need to pass both chambers of congress.

The bill, co-sponsored by Montana senators Steve Daines, Republican, and John Tester, Democrat, has bipartisan support and is in front of the U.S. Senate.

Meanwhile, an identical bill by Rep. Ryan Zinke, first introduced to the House in January 2015, has made little progress and is currently stalled in committee.

Zinke’s office released a statement explaining that he “has personally met with [Natural Resources Committee] Chairman Rob Bishop [R-Utah] about the bill and is keeping pressure on the Committee to recognize the Little Shell before any changes are being made to the process.”

After countless trips to the nation’s capital, Little Shell Tribal Chairman Gerald Gray Jr. knows this process all too well.

“Zinke’s gotta get our bill through markup,” he said. “It then has to be attached as a rider to a spending bill that they think would pass.”

Unfortunately for the Little Shell people, this is a familiar story. In the 1940s, Montana Sen. James Murray pressed the Department of Interior to purchase land for the Little Shell. In the 1950s and 60s, Montana Congressmen Murray, Mike Mansfield, and Lee Metcalf introduced legislation for federal recognition that failed to pass.

“It seems we have a common problem with government responsibility and responsiveness,” said Zinke during the Sept. 29, 2015 legislative hearing on Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians Restoration Act. “I think this is a case where the Chippewa have been wronged and we need to right it.”

While recognition comes with a host of benefits including opportunities for housing, healthcare and education, some members of the Little Shell feel that federal acknowledgement will finally provide the respect they deserve after enduring a lifetime of prejudice and racism from Native Americans and whites alike.


Jay Jarvis, a Little Shell tribal member, talks about what it was like growing up on Hill 57.
Jay Jarvis, a Little Shell tribal member, talks about what it was like growing up on Hill 57.

“I think for us older folks, not being recognized was hard,” Jarvis said. “Not only in dealing with the major problem of employment and housing and whatever, but it caused a lack of acceptance in our own Native American community.”

Gray, who was elected Little Shell chairman in 2012, said any benefits accompanying recognition are secondary.

“We, as a people, as a tribe, are moving forward to become self-sufficient,” he said. “We never wanted to be on the government tip.”

Self-reliance has always been an essential trait for Little Shell members.

Serena Steffenson, 48, is a Little Shell member who grew up on Hill 57. She now works for the Indian Education Department in the Great Falls School District and is married with two daughters. Her husband is in the National Guard and owns his own business. The family has housing and healthcare, but her daughters will be going into college soon.

“They would be able to apply for the federal grants out there, the federal scholarships that recognize federally recognized tribes,” she said.

Steffenson laments that the recognition process has taken so long.

“You know, I wish recognition would have came before my grandfather passed away, because he was very proud of us being Little Shell,” she said. “It is just a wrong that needs to be righted.”


“Recognition is a matter of justice for the people who deserve it,” said Kevin Washburn, the former Assistant Secretary of the BIA who led the effort to rewrite the tribal recognition rules.

Currently recognized by the state of Montana, the Little Shell Band of Chippewa ratified its first constitution in 1977. Gray said the Little Shell is the perfect tribe to take the congressional route to acknowledgement because they have widespread support and no one opposes its recognition.

“We have no negatives,” Gray said. “We have support from all the tribes in Montana, we have support from county commissioners, we have support from the entire state

Though Gray’s optimism seems well-founded, this is the fifth consecutive Congress to see a Little Shell recognition bill. If the bill doesn’t pass both the House and Senate soon, much like the BIA administrative process, the tribe will once again be disappointed and disserved by the bureaucratic process.

Little Shell tribal scholar Nicholas Vrooman, who is originally from upstate New York but has lived in Montana for the last 30 years, describes the Little Shell’s ongoing quest for recognition as “the last unresolved conflict from the Indian wars of the 19th century.”


Nicholas Vrooman, tribal scholar and author of the most comprehensive history of the Little Shell, has been instrumental in helping the Little Shell people navigate the recognition process.
Nicholas Vrooman, tribal scholar and author of the most comprehensive history of the Little Shell, has been instrumental in helping the Little Shell people navigate the recognition process.

Historically, recognition came in a variety of forms including treaties, statutes, presidential executive orders and other federal administrative actions.Today, federal recognition occurs in two ways: Congressionally, if identical bills pass in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and administratively through the BIA’s newly amended recognition process.

The federal government introduced the BIA recognition process in 1978. The Little Shell immediately petitioned for recognition. Under the 1978 regulations, the BIA required that tribes use outside sources to verify tribal existence and to prove consistent community and political authority over tribal members since first contact with Europeans.

The BIA process is rigorous. Only 17 tribes have been recognized since 1978, while 34 have been denied recognition. Thirteen other tribal petitions, including the Little Shell’s, are pending.

Vrooman sees the process as the government winnowing out the chaff.

“Their job is to say, we’re not against recognizing legitimate aboriginal groups of people and forming this relationship with them, but we just want to make sure.”

Certainty takes time. The BIA issued a negative Final Determination for Little Shell in 2009, 31 years after the tribe’s initial petition. The denial astounded many members because the positive initial finding in 2000 received no negative comments opposing Little Shell recognition.

“This has never been done to any other petitioner,” Gray said during the September 2015 committee hearing.

The BIA rules rewrite occurred in part because of extensive criticism of a broken, time-consuming, inherently biased administrative process. The rewrite enabled the Native American Rights Fund to file a lawsuit on behalf of the Little Shell so the tribe could re-submit its petition under the new regulations. The new regulations were completed in June of 2015.

The BIA changed the date for the burden of proof of existence, community and political authority from the time of first contact to 1900 and removed the third party verification requirement.

“This is a vast improvement. It’ll save applicants millions of dollars in anthropologists and historians having to go back to the 19th and 18th centuries,” Washburn said.

But the BIA’s 2009 Final Determination indicated inconclusive evidence of the tribe’s existence for several decades after the turn of the century. So even with the new burden of proof date redefined to 1900, providing a record of existence that satisfies the BIA’s stringent requirements still poses a significant challenge for the Little Shell.


The Little Shell’s convoluted existence began when the fur trade collapsed and the tribe became a semi-nomadic buffalo people. After ceding tribal land near the Red River in the 1864 Pembina Treaty, the tribe eventually settled near the present day Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation in North Dakota.

However nearly 30 years later, Chippewa band members signed the McCumber Agreement of 1892, effectively selling 10 million acres of land near Turtle Mountain to the federal government at less than 10 percent market value. Chief Little Shell was absent for the transaction.

Though later determined to be illegal, the McCumber Agreement left Little Shell members off of the official government records and the US government labeled them “Cree,” a Canadian tribe.

The Cree Deportation Act of 1896 funded Federal Buffalo soldiers to ride out of Fort Assinniboine and through Great Falls, Helena, Butte and Missoula to expel the now landless people consisting of The Little Shell and others,  living on the outskirts of Montana’s newly forming cities.

Tribal Elder Al Wiseman, 79, care-takes a Little Shell cemetery near where he grew up, along the Rocky Mountain Front near Choteau.

“They made roundups on our people and took em back to Canada. Just like you’d heard cattle or sheep,” Wiseman said while standing among his relatives’ gravestones. “Thank god they never got up here or these people woulda been gone too.”

Many of the deported Little Shell quickly returned to the fringes of Montana’s cities to pick up the pieces of their fragmented existence.


Al Weisman, a Little Shell tribal elder, takes care of a Metis cemetery in the mountains near Choteau, Montana.
Al Wiseman is a Little Shell tribal elder and the current caretaker of a Metis cemetery nestled in the mountains near Choteau, Montana. He believes that most of the Little Shell culture has been diluted and that recognition won’t bring it back.

The city of Great Falls forced Native Americans from the banks of the Missouri and Sun Rivers in the late 1920s. Many people moved five miles west of the city to Hill 57.

Hill 57 is named after an 80-foot-tall Heinz 57 advertisement written in whitewashed river rocks that once laid on the hill’s east slope. The Hill 57 community rested on the west side of the hill in a shallow, broken semi-circular bowl of drab earth filled with desiccated patches of grass. The landscape spills down toward the final serpentine twists of the Sun River before it confluences with the Missouri.

While looking at scattered piles of debris in an otherwise now-barren field, Jarvis described his grandmother’s home, a shack in the navel of the bowl. It sat near an old, gnarled cottonwood, the only tree in an expanse of scattered tarpaper shacks, teepees and capsized and corroded automobiles.

Built in the early 1930s and only big enough for her bed, her home expanded as the Jarvis family added generations. By Jarvis’ ninth birthday, the shack swelled to three rooms and the lean-to surrounding the cook-stove transformed to an enclosed kitchen where his grandmother sometimes hatched chicks from eggs she scavenged at the dump.

When Jarvis was a child, roughly 300 permanent residents and an additional 200 seasonal and temporary residents lived on Hill 57. They stayed because it was rent-free, family and friends had settled there, or because they were passing through and were unwanted in the city. Roughly half of Hill 57’s inhabitants were Little Shell and nearly all of the residents were Native American.

Every day, Jarvis, the oldest child, retrieved water from Hill 57’s only water source, a hand-pump installed by Great Falls municipal authorities just three years earlier, in 1954. Jarvis loaded milk bottles onto a wagon, pulled it down to the pump, filled them and hauled it back up Hil 57.

At age 11 Jarvis’ grandmother taught him to drive a ‘48 Chevy stick shift. The need to haul water with his wagon ceased, but the fights with the Snakeskin boys who spoke fluent Cree continued.


For many Little Shell members with similar experiences to those of Jarvis on Hill 57, maintaining the kind of cultural cohesion and political authority required by the BIA seemed impossible.

“Because of oppression and prejudice, they kept their mouths shut. They didn’t tell their children who they were and where they came from and what their rights were and the proud heritage that they had,” Vrooman said. “So there was a lot of introversion that comes with oppression. It affected deeply the expression of aboriginality.”

Jarvis recalls his grandmother and Mrs. RedThunder, a neighbor speaking Cree while he sat on the floor as a small boy, but his knowledge was only skin deep. Jarvis said he understood the entire conversation but never spoke the language.

“I probably could have spoken more than I realized but I didn’t because my dad didn’t want us doing that,” Jarvis said. “I had to act like I didn’t come from the Hill. That was a hard thing.”

Though he remembers his grandparents and their friends participating in giveaway dances, a traditional means of expressing grief after someone died, Jarvis always sat out.

“It wasn’t part of my world. It wasn’t part of the world that I was going to be accepted in,” he said. “It wasn’t part of the world that I was going to live in.”

In the absence of some of their historical traditions, the Little Shell are finding that the Sisyphean task of engaging the political process of recognition is becoming a birthright of each new generation.

“In a sense that struggle for community defines the Little Shell community to this day,” Vrooman said. “One thing that never went away, and indeed really is stronger now than ever, is the political consciousness of their just rights.”


Daniel Pocha is a self-employed upholster in Helena. Pocha grew up in Helena moving between several different landless native communities, like Moccasin Flats, that were eventually torn down in the wake of urban renewal projects in the 1960s and 70s.
Daniel Pocha is a self-employed upholster in Helena. Pocha grew up in Helena moving between several different landless native communities, like Moccasin Flats, that were eventually torn down in the wake of urban renewal projects in the 1960s and 70s.

Though the Little Shell continue to strive for recognition, it means something different to most members than it once did. They no longer need a reservation or tribal land because like Jarvis, Pocha and Wiseman, the Little Shell people live in communities across the state and country. Like most Americans, they grew roots where they grew up or moved to where work and life called them.

According to Vrooman, “If you want to look for a saving grace in this debacle, and it’s not because of the federal government, it’s because of the strength and beauty and stamina and persistence of the little shell, is because they’re not on a reservation, over these generations they’ve had to learn how to survive in the larger dominant society.”

Wiseman never questioned the Little Shell resolve to survive in the larger society. After leaving school at age 16 because of discrimination and spending his next 52 years as a carpenter, Wiseman said, “The Indian is a survivor, so you’re never gonna get rid of him either. We’re a resilient people.”

Gray echoes that sense of pride, with or without recognition. “We know who we are, we are a tribe, we’re always gonna be a tribe, whether we’re recognized by the federal government or not,” he said.

Still, Gray said the tribe is in the fight for the long-haul, “We’ve been waiting a 130 years. We can wait another five or whatever it takes.”

Though unaware of the new regulations or the possible congressional recognition, Jarvis has seen too much disappointment over the years, including during his time on the tribal council, to get his hopes up.

“I never expect anything different. Not after all these years. I’ll probably kick the bucket and they’ll still be fighting over recognition,” Jarvis said.

Despite any disenchantment Jarvis and other Little Shell might be faced with, Washburn urges persistence in the fight for recognition.

“Nothing in the bureaucratic process is fast,” he said. “If you read all the literature about business these days, they say the best CEOs are the ones that have persistence. They keep focusing on their goals.

“If tribes didn’t have to have persistence and didn’t show it for hundreds of years none of them would exist,” he said.

 For past Native News editions visit the archive here. 

CORRECTION: In our print edition’s photo captions, we incorrectly spelled Mr. Wiseman’s last name “Weisman.” The correction has been applied on our online edition.

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