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Waiting for the day that never comes

Montana's landless Little Shell tribe has pursued federal recognition for decades. Could a new rule finally bring them closure?

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Jackie Trotchie, a member of Montana's landless Little Shell tribe of Chippewa Indians, answers a knock on her apartment door. It opens to a kitchenette, originally installed for overnight guests at the Family Inn, a small motel at the mouth of Hellgate Canyon. The building was re-branded Grizzly Apartments a few years ago, and rooms are now rented out to long-term residents.

Outdated plastic blinds are pulled across the front windows, and thin bars of sunshine struggle to brighten the apartment. Books, folders, DVDs, dishes and clothing are ordered in stacks around the edges of the small room. A cardboard box stands in as a coffee table near an old, tube-fed television.

Trotchie (from the French trottier, meaning to walk fast), however, appears as though she's recently returned from a Sunday outing.

We sit at her kitchen table, which nearly blocks the front door. The petite, 69-year-old woman opens a small photo album. A grainy, gray panorama is taped across two pages at the front of the album: Mt. Helena looms in the distance. A tar-papered, single-story building rests in the foreground, of the sort found crippled with age on the back 40 of ranches across Montana. This was Trotchie's grandmother's residence, built near her parents' home in a Helena neighborhood called Moccasin Flat, around 1954.

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"Life was miserable in Helena," Trotchie begins, shaking her head. "Anybody who lived on Moccasin Flat was a 'dirty rotten Indian.'"

Located roughly where K-Mart now stands, the isolated neighborhood was home to many American Indians, including several Little Shell families. Accommodations ranged from conventional single-family houses to improvised shacks built of scavenged materials. Such neighborhoods—sometimes called the "buckskin fringe"—were common in urban areas where landless Indians struggled to earn a living.

Her parents had worked hard to create a permanent home on the Flat, where their children felt safe and had a sense of belonging. "There was a whole bunch of Natives living there and I was so glad," Trotchie recalls. But life in the larger community was different. "I remember when I was in high school, I was told by kids that every Indian girl should be raped at least once. That's how bad it was."

During her sophomore year, in 1963, harassment from her classmates became "unmerciful" and Trotchie dropped out of school. She took a job as a stocker at Bonanza, a downtown restaurant, and moved into the YWCA. A couple years later, her parents had to move as well.

The state highway department had devised plans for a new interchange on Interstate 15 with an off-ramp through Moccasin Flat. Properties in the neighborhood were condemned under eminent domain.

"We had a nice, big house with a beautiful yard and my mother grew Kentucky Blue Grass on it," Trotchie says. "When we lost it, some guy came and bought the lawn from my mother and rolled it all up to take to his house.

"The highway knocked out the whole of Moccasin Flat," she continues. "They wiped out the whole place."

Many American Indians can relate to Trotchie's story of racism and dislocation, but it's perhaps especially poignant to members of the landless Little Shell band. The Little Shell people have never been acknowledged under the federal tribal recognition rule, which outlines the criteria tribes must meet in order to establish a formal government-to-government relationship with the United States. The state of Montana recognized the tribe in 2000, but the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs remains undecided, 36 years after the tribe first submitted its petition for recognition under the rule.

PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters

For members of the Little Shell, however, there may finally be hope on the horizon. Last April, the Obama administration released a set of changes to the Federal Acknowledgement Process and these changes became law on Aug. 1, 2015. Now, the Little Shell and other unrecognized tribes can pursue their cases for recognition under a revised set of criteria, which were significantly influenced by the unique circumstances of the Little Shell's struggle for federal acknowledgment.

These developments are welcome news for Trotchie, who, as she approaches 70, is determined to focus more on the future than the past.

"I keep thinking about my grandkids," she says, referring to her grandson, Sage, 26, and granddaughter Cela, 24, who has a 7-year-old son. "It'd be great if they had ways to improve their quality of life."

"It was concealed history"

Many American Indian tribes have actively pursued federal recognition for more than a century—campaigning, lobbying, petitioning and even suing for legal acknowledgement as members of sovereign nations. Over the last 35 years, the struggle for most of these tribes has been defined by a notoriously slow Federal Acknowledgement Process administered by the BIA. The process can drag on for decades without decision, leaving the lives of tens of thousands of American Indians in limbo. Since 1978, when it was first established, 87 tribes have petitioned for recognition, yet only 51 have received a final determination—and nearly a third of these decisions were negative.

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