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A matter of identity

They are few in number. They are scattered. The history they share, more or less, is splintered and disputed. But some Turtle Mountain descendants and admirers of the late-19th century Chippewa Chief Little Shell, who walked away from what he con...

Turtle Mountain Reservation
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They are few in number. They are scattered. The history they share, more or less, is splintered and disputed.

But some Turtle Mountain descendants and admirers of the late-19th century Chippewa Chief Little Shell, who walked away from what he considered an unjust land settlement offered by the United States in 1892, believe they have an identity all their own.

"We want to be a separate entity of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, with our own self-determination," said Delvin Cree of Dunseith, N.D., who says he is a fifth-generation descendant of Little Shell.

Cree and other blood descendants of the chief and his followers, numbering a few hundred in North Dakota and perhaps a few thousand around the country, want federal recognition as a distinct Indian tribe, he said. They seek a share of treaty funds and their own land base.

It's not likely to happen, said Richard Marcellais, the elected chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band.

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"He'd have to be recognized as a separate tribe by the federal government," he said. "It's a long, drawn-out process, and I don't know how many people would want to follow him."

As to Cree's claim that the hereditary chieftainship remains in his family, "we have no position for that (a chief) in our tribal government," the chairman said.

Marcellais, who also is a state senator, said that about 800 members of the Turtle Mountain Band live at Trenton, N.D., southwest of Williston near the Montana border, and some there "want to break off as a separate tribe, too. But they've been trying for years."

A heroic symbol

Within the Ojibwe (Chippewa) family, Cree and his associates are a faction of a faction, one of many groups claiming Chief Little Shell as a heroic forbear.

The federally recognized band, with its reservation in north-central North Dakota, uses an image of Little Shell on its Web site, letterhead and license plates.

In Montana, a landless and scattered group calling itself the Little Shell Tribe of Montana continues a century-long struggle for recognition by the U.S. government.

The old chief's name also has been used by a splinter group tagged by the Anti-Defamation League as an extremist organization.

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According to the ADL, the so-called Little Shell Pembina Band of North America -- disavowed by the Turtle Mountain Band -- ran afoul of the law in Florida and other states in 2004 for offering to sell tribal memberships to undocumented immigrants, a sort of red "green card." No Ojibwe or other Indian blood was required.

Cree said his people have "no connection at all" to the group, which appears to have faded. "We have no part in that kind of anti-government behavior."

Cree's grandfather, the late Francis Cree, fought a long battle over treaty decisions as they applied -- or didn't apply -- to the Little Shell people of the Turtle Mountains. He went to Washington to plead the case to senators and met with President John F. Kennedy.

Francis Cree was a party to lawsuits filed in federal court in 1992 alleging government mismanagement of funds due the Chippewa from the 1863 Old Crossing Treaty, which also involved the Red Lake Band of Chippewa, and the 1892 agreement. He died in 2007, but the legal actions continue.

Delvin Cree and relatives say they hold documents which establish their family's claim to the hereditary chieftainship of the Turtle Mountain tribe. "The chieftainship continues," Cree said. The tribal government in Belcourt, N.D., "is not a legal government."

His has been a shoestring crusade. Last month, denied travel assistance by the Turtle Mountain Band's council, Cree raised money for a trip to Washington by raffling traditional willow baby baskets, selling homemade fry bread and chili and asking friends for help with gas. (Chairman Marcellais, who was in Washington at the same time, said he helped a member of Cree's party return to North Dakota after she apparently had a falling out with Cree.)

Introducing himself as a member of the Little Shell Nation Grand Council, Cree met on March 1 with Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and with staff members of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, which Dorgan chairs.

Dorgan had to speak at the National Congress of American Indians and left the meeting at his office before the Little Shell issue came up, Cree and a Senate staff member said, but the senator and Cree discussed a poverty reduction project and other Turtle Mountain issues.

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In Montana, a plea for recognition

The Montana Little Shell also trace their drive for recognition to 1863 and the Pembina Band of Chippewa Indians' signing of the Old Crossing Treaty.

In 1892, after mass immigration and settlement of Indian lands, a government commission led by Porter J. McCumber (a future U.S. senator from North Dakota), negotiated a further land deal that restricted the Ojibwe to the present reservation in north-central North Dakota.

Chief Little Shell refused to accept the terms, including the government's offer of 10 cents an acre for 10 million acres of prime farming land, and his people were left out of the settlement.

Little Shell died in 1901. His people have argued since that the government brokered the 1892 deal with illegitimate interests, including Canadian and Minnesota Indians and non-Indians. (One thing uniting the factions: the ongoing effort to negotiate a settlement for alleged mishandling of Indian trust funds by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.)

After the McCumber agreement, Little Shell's people wandered the Northern Plains, hunting the dwindling buffalo herds until finally settling -- individually and by small family groups -- in towns and on other tribes' reservations across Montana and adjacent states and provinces. They have no reservation of their own.

For decades, they pleaded for state and federal recognition, which might bring a land base and protections for a fading culture. Montana formally recognized the Little Shell people there in 2000, which allowed them to apply for state economic development grants and other benefits.

But after the petition for federal recognition was filed in 1978, the United States stalled -- until October 2009, when the U.S. Department of Interior finally gave a clear answer: No.

Federal authorities cited the "tribe's" scattered, landless membership, about 4,300 people spread across Montana and neighboring areas, a lack of "cohesion" and a history of intermarriage with non-Indians and members of other tribes.

But that is who and what we are, the Montana Little Shell said, vowing to press their claim in Congress, where a bill to extend federal recognition has been introduced by a Montana senator and assigned to Dorgan's committee.

The Little Shell people embrace their mixed-race heritage. Like the Chippewa of Turtle Mountain, many call themselves Metis, and many bear surnames of French origin. Others claim ancestors with such far-flung origins as Syria, Lebanon, Mexico and Scotland. The Little Shell tribal song is the Red River Jig, played on a fiddle.

"People look at us and say, 'You're not Indian,' " Chairman John Sinclair told the Associated Press in 2008 as the band waited for Interior's decision. "We say, 'We're not. We're Little Shell.' "

When the negative decision came last fall, elder Roger Salois, 72, struggled to explain how he felt. "You have your community and your place to go," he told a reporter. "We don't have that. But we're still together, and we're still Little Shell."

And they still are breaking into factions.

Last week, tribal members unhappy with Chairman Sinclair and his council "elected" a new chairman and council. Sinclair did not take part and refuses to acknowledge the special election. The challenge was due to "personal vendettas ... false allegations and distortions," he said, adding that the internal dispute "hurts the tribe's chance to gain long-awaited federal recognition."

No relationship

Despite the name, there appears to be little enduring connection between the Montana Little Shell and those in North Dakota who claim to be the old chief's blood kin. But many families still have ties across the divide, Turtle Mountain Chairman Marcellais said

"There is no relationship," Delvin Cree said. "We have made two requests to meet with Mr. John Sinclair and his council in the past few months, and they have never responded.

"We believe we are (perceived as) a threat to their organization," he said, because Sinclair and his people are kin to followers of Louis Riel, the Metis leader who led the Red River Rebellion of 1869-70 and the Northwest Rebellion of 1885, which ended with his execution for treason.

"When Louis Riel was hanged in Canada, his descendants came to the United States," Cree said, "and took refuge within the Little Shell Band."

On the Web:

- Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians: www.tmbci.net/

- Little Shell history: http://tinyurl.com/yd2sgwb

- History, culture of Turtle Mountain Band (pdf): http://tinyurl.com/y8cqp5q

- Anti-Defamation League on Little Shell Pembina Band: http://tinyurl.com/ybjxype

Reach Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or send e-mail to chaga@gfherald.com .

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