Montana’s Little Shell Band of Chippewa Cree Indians inched closer to federal recognition Thursday, with the Senate approval.

With Thursday afternoon’s Senate vote, the Little Shell are closer to recognition than the tribe has ever been, said Montana's U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines. House action is still needed, but representatives have twice in less than a year supported recognizing the Little Shell. Montana’s delegation assumes the House’s past support means it will do so again now that the Senate is on board.

“It was 84 years ago, 1934, when the Little Shell submitted application, working with BIA at the federal level, 10,000 pages of paperwork,” Daines, a Republican, said in a press conference. “Unfortunately some of these federal bureaucracies moved the goalposts in the federal recognition process of tribes. And the Little Shell have suffered because of that, and we’re finally getting it done.”

Without federal recognition, the Little Shell have never received basic treaty rights offered to other American Indian tribes, including health care and land. There have been several attempts in Congress over the years to grant the Little Shell recognition, but those measures stalled, particularly in the Senate where until Thursday, Little Shell recognition had never received a vote by the entire Senate.

Recognition made it to the Senate floor Thursday as an amendment to the must pass National Defense Authorization Act. The NDAA sets U.S. defense funding levels and establishes spending priorities. Senators propose hundreds of the amendments to NDAA hoping one of their constituent issues can catch a ride, but only a few dozen amendments are accepted. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is the gatekeeper for amendments.

“Why I think this worked this time is because Sen. McConnell was open to putting on our amendment. If Sen. McConnell had not been willing to put this on as an amendment, it would have been very difficult for Steve or myself to try to try to get it on,” said Tester, a Democrat. “But when you have both Democrat and Republican leadership that are on the same page, it makes it much easier.”

Tester said near his Big Sandy farm the Little Shell own land, which could be federally recognized with final passage of the legislation. 

Another challenge for recognition will come after the Fourth of July break when the House and Senate versions of the NDAA are reconciled in conference. Currently, the House NDAA doesn’t include Little Shell recognition, but because the House has twice in 10 months easily approved recognition bills introduced by Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., the assumption is recognition language will be added to the House NDAA after the break and before conference. Without companion action in the Senate, Gianforte’s Little Shell bills had no way to advance.

It's been a long journey for the Little Shell recognition. The last time tribal chairman Gerald Gray visited Washington, D.C., he handed Daines a soup can with "Little Shell" scrawled on its side in magic marker. As Daines recalled, Gray told him it was time for Congress to stop kicking the can down the road on Little Shell recognition. The senator said he has kept that can on his desk.