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Little Shell

"A punch in the stomach"

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The United States Department of the Interior (DOI) again delayed a decision granting Montana's Little Shell Tribe federal recognition, in what's become a predictable practice in bureaucratic stalling.

Little Shell President John Sinclair told the Independent in August that the tribe is "used to waiting." He made the statement after the DOI announced a 60-day delay in late July. When that postponement expired last week, the DOI announced a further 30-day delay.

Sinclair says the latest news came as a shock in light of recent conversations.

"It was kinda like a punch in the stomach," Sinclair says. "What we were told was [the 60-day delay] was longer than they really wanted, so when they added another 30 days it was quite surprising."

In a letter to Sinclair, Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs George Skibine stated the extension is necessary to complete a legal review of the tribe's petition. The DOI will notify Sinclair prior to releasing its decision so he can arrange a meeting with tribal representatives, Skibine wrote.

"The delays seem to be getting shorter," Sinclair says. "We went from six months down to three months down to one month. I don't know if that's a sign."

Federal recognition would award the landless Little Shell access to government funding in health care, education and housing. The 4,000-member tribe has grown increasingly scattered across Montana over the last century. An estimated 30 percent now live outside the state.

Montana has recognized the Little Shell Tribe since 2000. Congressmen, legislators and Gov. Brian Schweitzer continue to support the group politically in the decades-long federal battle, but so far to no avail.

"Time is not on our side," wrote Sen. Jon Tester in a letter to Skibine in July. "And considering the timeline of events over the past 31 years, the Little Shell people deserve a decision—not another delay."

Skibine declared Oct. 26 the new deadline for a decision. It's the department's fourth extension since summer 2008.

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