Saturday, April 4, 2009

Chief Thomas Little Shell

“We are a scattered tribe. We weren’t claimed by the whites. We weren’t claimed by the full bloods,” Lavenger said. “They used to call us persons with no souls. Now at least we have an identity.”

The problems began in 1892 when an Indian agent came to the tribe’s home, North Dakota’s Turtle Mountain Reservation. Chief Thomas Little Shell was away in Montana with 112 other families on a hunting trip. In their absence, tribal rolls were cut and a million acres of the tribe’s land was sold for $90,000. When he returned, Little Shell refused to take part in the deal, said Ed Lavenger, an elder with the Little Shell Tribe who lives in Billings. “He was protesting the dropping of so many names from the rolls,” Lavenger said. “It was all or none.”
With no land, the tribe scattered. In 1896, 600 of the landless Indians were captured by soldiers, put into boxcars and dropped off at the Canadian border. That winter, they walked back, living in squalid shacks in “Moccassin Flats” areas outside of towns along the Hi-Line and the eastern front of the Rocky Mountains, Lavenger said. “We are a scattered tribe. We weren’t claimed by the whites. We weren’t claimed by the full bloods,” Lavenger said. “They used to call us persons with no souls. Now at least we have an identity.”

A people without land

Not counting the Little Shell Tribe, Montana has 11 federally recognized tribes and seven reservations. Adjusting to life with the whites was tough enough, Lavenger said, but at least the other tribes in the state had their own land. Lavenger and his five siblings, including Gloria Williams, of Billings, grew up in the 1940s and 50s near Chinook in a 12-foot by 15-foot tarpaper shack. Lavenger’s father found seasonal work on cattle ranches. This meant the children were pulled from school in April and didn’t return until after the hoar frost. “We just traveled from place to place, living in shacks and tents,” Williams said. “It was really tough. I can remember going to school and having the kids tease me because I was Indian. If they brushed against me or something, they’d say ‘watch out now, you’re going to get fleas.’ They never trusted the Indians.” Families in the tribe continued to scatter. Divided, the tribe’s language and culture began to be conquered. But the tribe held on, Lavenger said. Tribal Chairman Joe Dussome held the tribe together for four decades. Members continued to hope that they would regain their status as a tribe. “We used to hold basket socials, dances and bingo games to raise money for (Dussome) to go to Washington to try and get to see somebody to help us with our cause,” Williams said. Other tribal leaders continued to fight for recognition, notably former Chairman John Gilbert. Petitions were filed. Lineages were traced. The tribe had to prove there was continuity over its 109 years without land. Federal officials kept postponing the decision. Burdened with a legacy of racism and a lack of jobs, the Little Shell struggled to find access to health care and higher education, Williams said. “I don’t have teeth,” said Williams, 59. “I couldn’t afford to get teeth. These other tribes get teeth, eyeglasses, medication, housing, all of that, and we get nothing.” The Crow Tribe made it a bit easier by donating medical treatment to the Little Shell, said Diana Grantham, of Billings. “The local tribes here have been wonderful. In fact we’ve been receiving health benefits at Crow Agency,” Grantham said. “If it weren’t for the Crow extending their hand, we would have had real problems,” Lavenger said. Williams said she was stunned when she learned that the government gave preliminary approval Friday for recognition of the Little Shell. “Thanks be to God,” Williams said. “We’ve been waiting for this for a long time. This is just a godsend. It is a dream come true. I can’t begin to tell you what this means to me. I’ve had so many people pass away waiting for this day. It means that now I can say I am a part of the Little Shell Tribe and my grandchildren can get help with schooling. We can probably get some medical help, too.” Williams said the ruling finally allows her people to rest their feet. “We’re somebody,” Williams said. “We’re not just this body floating around out there.”

Zimmerman said the federal recognition is important, but it is merely a confirmation of something that’s always been there. “I always said we shouldn’t be getting recognized, we should be getting re-recognized,” Zimmerman said. “We were always a tribe.”