Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians of Montana

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Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians of Montana, also known as the Little Shell Band of Landless Chippewa Indians of Montana, is an Anishinaabe (Ojibwa) tribe recognized by the State of Montana. The State-recognized tribe is seeking federal recognition from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The tribe is named after its nineteenth-century Chief Esens, known as "Little Shell".

The Little Shell Chippewa Tribe is without a reservation or land base and members live in various parts of Montana. There are population concentrations in Great Falls, Havre, Lewistown, Helena, Butte, Chinook, Hays, Wolf Point, Hamilton, and Billings, as well as numerous other small communities in the state. Because the tribe has been without a land base for over 100 years, many members and their descendants live outside of Montana. Many changes are expected during the next decade as federal recognition is implemented.


From probably both northern Ontario and northern Minnesota, during the early part of the 18th century, the ancestors of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians of Montana migrated from the Great Lakes area into the Plains of Canada and the United States. They allied with the Assiniboine and Cree in a confederacy and drove out the Dakota and probably other tribes native to what is now Alberta, Manitoba, Minnesota, Montana, and Ontario.


The Little Shell Band of Chippewa Indians are part of the historical Pembina Band of Chippewa Indians, first recorded by European settlers in documents from the Hudson's Bay Company, Fort Garry (Winnipeg) in the early 18th century. These logs and diaries show the Ojibwa held approximately 63 million acres (250,000 km²) of land throughout what is now South Dakota, North Dakota and Canada. By the early 19th century, many French Canadian, mostly fur trappers, had married into the Ojibwa. The Pembina Band entered into a treaty with the United States in the 1863 Treaty of Old Crossing, together with the Red Lake Band of Chippewa. In the 1892 McCumber Agreement between the Turtle Mountain Indians and the Commission, the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation was established, but the Little Shell Band of Chippewa Indians refused settlement there. Some of the Little Shell Band members did eventually settle on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation, while others migrated north and west into Saskatchewan and Alberta, and then making their way back south into Montana.

May 2014 was grand opening of the Little Shell tribe’s new cultural center, located outside Great Falls.[1]

Chief Esens[edit]

In 1864 Chief Esens (Little Shell) walked out of further negotiations and refused to amend the original treaty. In 1892 the Chief sent word to Washington D.C. that he would exchange 52 million acres (210,000 km²) of land and the treaty rights of 1863 for a large reservation, to include the entire Turtle Mountain area, at the price of $1.00 per acre of land.

Senator McCumber was sent to meet with the Pembina Band of Chippewa Indians and during the first meeting, when he was not present, his agent Waugh offered $0.10 per acre. The Pembina walked out of the meeting in disgust, knowing that the US had paid $1.00 per acre for less valuable land near Fort Berthold. Agent Waugh brought in 32 Ojibwe from Canada and had them sign the treaty, known as The McCumber Agreement or the Ten Cent Treaty. After hearing of the fraud, John Burke, state attorney for Rolette County, North Dakota, agreed to represent Chief Little Shell before the US Senate. Senator McCumber agreed with John Burke that the treaty was a fraud. The US Senate waited until after his death in 1905 to ratify the fraudulent treaty. The Little Shell people were told to either sign the treaty or be starved to death. Members of the tribe became nomadic; several tribal members moved to France.

Additional Information[edit]

Population: The name of the tribe is: “The Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians of Montana,” and it is often shortened to “Little Shell.” The name “Métis” (pronounced may-tee) is often used, meaning “middle people” or “mixed blood.” The term Métis or more correctly Métifs, was first used during the 18th and 19th centuries, but at that time it identified a specific Northwest society with its own culture and economic traditions, living in the areas of the Red River, the Saskatchewan River, Turtle Mountain, North Dakota, and the area of present day Winnipeg and Pembina, North Dakota. A further discussion regarding this group is found in the subsequent section titled Ethnography and Historical Background. The current population of enrolled tribal members in Montana is approximately 3,850 and that number has not changed much in recent years. The tribe maintains only a rented office with volunteer staff, but continues to struggle for federal recognition. The Métis number in the thousands in the United States and south central Canada, and there are many unenrolled Little Shell people in Montana. Exact population numbers are not available. In the mid 1800s the tribe was numbered at several thousand in the Red River-Pembina region. At that time there was no formal enrollment procedure, no reservation and thus no documented population figure. After the 1892 renegotiation of the Treaty of 1863, (the infamous 10 cent treaty) many of the Métis, including the Band of Chippewa under Little Shell, were left without a land base or reservation, and many became nomadic.

Ethnography and Historical Background: The lack of a reservation or land base has been a profound determinant of the fate and destiny of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa—a defining part of their history. The origins of the Métis date back to the late 17th century when the fur trade became a significant commercial endeavor. Before the establishment of the United States/Canada border in 1846, vast regions of the central and western parts of the continent in what are now known as Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho and Washington were unsettled, and under the chartered use of the Hudson’s Bay Company (Ruperts Land). Trapping and harvesting beaver pelts and other furs for return to Europe through eastern markets required the alliance and support of the native inhabitants of the areas west of the Great Lakes. Working for Hudson’s Bay Company and the competing Northwest Company, the trapping and trading was done largely by immigrant Irish, Scotch, and French (voyageurs) who formed liaisons with the northern tribes to trade for goods in exchange for the valuable animal pelts. Marriage “a la façon du pays” (according to local custom) was a basic part of the social interaction and liaison between the voyageurs and the local native inhabitants. Most of these unions involved Saulteaux (Ojibwa) and Cree women, although there were also many unions with the Chippewa, Blackfeet and Sarcee, the latter two living further west. Thus, thousands of Métis or “mixed blood” people came to occupy the areas nearest the trading posts along with thousands of Chippewa and Cree. This population increased to many thousand and took root in the region of the Red River in what is now southern Manitoba, and northern Minnesota. In the early 19th century they called themselves “Métifs,” “Bois-Brûlés,” and “les gens libres” (the free people). The early generations were of Indian mothers and immigrant European fathers—parents who usually did not even share a common language. The resulting language, called “Mitchif” today by the Little Shell and Turtle Mountain people, was a unique blend of Chippewa native language, French, Cree, and a little English. By 1840 they had become a distinct and independent group, unique in the world with cultural ties to both French voyageurs and other Chippewa bands, but they also identified with their full blood parents’ communities. They industriously trapped, hunted buffalo, and conducted trading business with the Hudson’s Bay Company, transporting goods from the far west to the trade centers at Fort Benton, Battleford, Red River, Batoche and Pembina. Their numbers grew and the settlements increased in size, containing both full-blooded Chippewa and Métis. Many lived in Northwest Company camps further west in Montana and southern Alberta. In 1867, New Brunswick, Quebec, Nova Scotia and Ontario merged to form a British Dominion called Canada. In the late 1860s and early 1870s when colonization of Canada continued westward from Quebec, and the Hudson’s Bay Company began to relinquish control of these vast territories, the Red River settlements occupied by the Métis were geographically annexed to Canada, although there was no political alignment to the newly formed dominion of Canada by the Métis people. The Métis and Chippewa people of the Red River settlements began resisting the colonization of what they perceived as their home territory and attempted to establish a sovereign nation in southern Canada to be known as “Assiniboia.” Louis Riel, their chosen political leader and representative to parliament for purposes of establishing the Metis-Indian nation, was only partly successful. Ultimately the movement for independence from Canada was denied, and over the next two decades, two military rebellions by Riel and the Metis were put down, the last in 1885. Riel’s military leader, Gabriel Dumont left for Montana. The execution of Louis Riel for treason marked the end of the Métis-Chippewa nation as they had conceived of it, and white settlers poured into the region. A reservation in the Turtle Mountain Area had been set aside for the Chippewa and Métis who had taken up permanent residence in what is now North Dakota. The two principal chiefs of the tribe to be known as the Pembina Chippewa were Little Shell and Red Bear. Along with the United States government, these two chiefs were signators to the Treaty of 1863, which established a 10 million acre reservation. Many of the Chippewa and Métis engaged in agriculture and ranching on this reservation, while others continued to subsist on buffalo hunting and trading endeavors to the west where they had migrated to insulate themselves from the westward expansion of white settlements, which accelerated after Manitoba was annexed to the Dominion of Canada in 1869. In a manner similar to what happened on many reservations, white settlers continued to migrate onto the Indian lands on both sides of the 49th parallel, which had become the United States -Canadian border, and seeing no industry, they erected permanent buildings, businesses, fences and roads, until the federal government moved to renegotiate the treaty. Chief Little Shell (son of the signator to the 1863 treaty) refused to sign. The new agreement provided approximately a million dollars for the 10 million acres of land ceded under the 1892 document, which became known as the “Ten-Cent Treaty” in reference to the 10 cents per acre being offered. In the wake of Little Shell’s refusal to sign the Ten Cent Treaty, and because many of the group were on a prolonged hunting expedition in Montana, tribal members were removed from the reservation list and federal recognition was lost. The resulting reservation was then less than 10 percent of its original size. 1892 was the beginning of a 120-year period of languishing as a tribe without a homeland and with little economic opportunity. Some took refuge in Montana, some migrated west to Alberta, in their traditional two- wheel “Red River Carts.” Some allied with other tribes, and some joined the Turtle Mountain Chippewa to the south in what is now North Dakota. Many wandered and hunted as a means to avoid drifting into poverty, as white settlers took over their settlements, fields and crops. As the buffalo disappeared, their subsistence and their way of life crumbled. Without federal recognition, they were without legal standing as citizens, without a land on which to live, and unable to qualify as homesteaders. There were instances of Little Shell Chippewa being rounded up by the United States military and deported to Canada.Facing starvation, many survived this era by salvaging buffalo bones and skulls from the prairie and selling them at trading posts to be shipped eastward to fertilize rose gardens in the east. Many could not read or write and had no access to education, taking jobs as servants and ranch hands for the very settlers who occupied their former homeland. Some integrated with other Indians on other reservations (French surnames are common on Montana Reservations). And some lived in wandering destitution or in hovels on the perimeter of white communities. Many were poverty stricken, and without health care, many died during the harsh northern winters. But efforts to reestablish their status as federally recognized Indians continued. After the third Chief Little Shell died in 1904, Joseph Dussome became a popular leader among the tribe, dedicating his life to efforts in locating members, enrolling members, meeting with officials in Washington, D.C., and organizing the splintered tribe. In 1927 he was organizing under the name of the “Abandoned Band of Chippewa Indians.” In 1934 he incorporated a group known as the “Landless Indians of Montana,” and in that same year, under the Indian Reorganization Act, Congress offered land for a reservation for the Little Shell Tribe, but President Franklin Roosevelt vetoed the action, based on the tribe’s lack of federal recognition. Dussome continued in his efforts to restore hope for the tribe, even as the nation suffered through the Depression. Dussome has come to exemplify hope to the people of the tribe and spirit—that same spirit that has shown itself in the tribe’s relentless petitioning of the United States government for recognition—and the hope that one day they will be landless no longer. This hope began to be realized in the year 2000, under provisions of a 1978 program that established criteria under which a tribe may petition the federal government for acknowledgement. Preliminary recognition has been granted at the time of this writing.

Contemporary Issues: The principal concern of the Tribal Government and most of its members lies in the federal acknowledgement process. The petition, as it existed in the late 1990s, represented many thousands of hours of work by the tribal government, volunteers, and consultants. This historical document consisted of over 300 pages, according to former Tribal Councilman Robert VanGunten, Director of Adult and Continuing Education at the Salish and Kootenai College in Pablo, and there are 10 boxes of attachments to the historical document. The current petition consists of numerous and lengthy reports submitted by the tribe to provide the historical, anthropological and cultural evidence needed for the Interior Department’s Branch of Acknowledgment and Research (BAR) to review the petition. When BAR responded with a list of deficiencies and omissions, the tribe responded with further research. The supporting evidence of “community,” an important criterion, was strengthened by the report of Franklin et al., of the Department of Anthropology of California State University, Long Beach, California, a report by Montana sociologist Milton Colvin of the College of Great Falls (1957), and a 1941 report by Raymond Gray, a leader of a factional group known as the “Montana Landless Indians.” Council Chairman Tim Zimmerman praised tribal leaders such as Van Gunten, former Tribal Chairman John Gilbert, and others who have worked tirelessly without compensation, to keep the petition alive when the announcement came in May 2000. The Native American Rights Fund, and particularly Robert Peregoy were also instrumental during the 1980s and 1990s as an advocate for the Little Shell Tribe. Although the notice of preliminary recognition was issued in May of 2000, additional information is to be provided during a 180-day waiting period. Zimmerman and the current council members continue to search for records and documents to complete and finalize the recognition bid before the end of the year. Affecting a change in public perceptions of the citizens of Montana about who the Little Shell people are is among the goals of the tribe as recognition is now imminent. Economic opportunities, training and health care will now be increasingly available to the tribe and it is important that the citizens of Montana continue to support the efforts of the Little Shell Tribal Council and its members.


The Little Shell Tribe is governed by a constitutionally-defined elected tribal council, which has maintained its integrity throughout the 20th century. The constitution has been revised, most recently in 1977, and the central office location has moved a few times but the government, social structure and culture have been maintained. Four council seats are up for election every other year, in a largely mail-in balloting process. The tribal council meets regularly in Great Falls, at least monthly, and quarterly meetings are held in other communities in Montana where enclaves of Little Shell people live, in efforts to keep tribal members involved and informed.

George Sinclair was elected president to succeed Joe Dussome, and served until 1976. Debbie Swanson of Havre was former Tribal Chairman during the 1980s when Gov. Stan Stephens granted State Recognition to the tribe. State Recognition process formally incorporated the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians of Montana.

The Council and office staff are unpaid except for donations from individuals and organizations. As a group, which is not federally-recognized, the Little Shell do not qualify for any federally-funded educational or government support services such as housing and medical facilities, which are typically provided tribes recognized by the United States government. The Little Shell Tribe have obtained such services only through public services available in urban centers.

Events of Interest[edit]

  • Joseph Dussome Day—An annual gathering of the tribe for cultural renaissance, social activities, election results, announcements and committee meetings, usually in September or October.
  • Back to Batoche Celebration—An annual gathering of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa and sister Tribes of Metis in Canada, commemorating the Riel Rebellion, and including cultural activities, dancing, art and socializing, at Batoche, Saskatchewan.


  1. ^ "Little Shell will dedicate center, discuss language". Great Falls Tribune. 2014-05-01. Retrieved 2014-05-05. 

The Great Falls Tribune, along with other area newspapers, has carried literally hundreds of stories, both current events and containing significant historical coverage during the period from 1930 to the present. The Tribune has often advocated federal recognition for the Little Shell Chippewa people

A Brief Historical Overview Of The Little Shell Tribe of Pembina Chippewa, by Deward E. Walker, Jr., July 1990—This historical digest may be obtained from the Little Shell Tribal Offices in Great Falls.

The Free People—Otipemisiwak, by Diane Paulette Payment—This volume contains a detailed and articulate history of the Metifs and includes cultural issues, early photographs, political action descriptions and other historical data-from a Canadian perspective. May be available on inter-library loan from Canadian affiliates.

Waiting For A Day That Never Comes, by Verne Dusenberry—Published in “Montana Magazine of Western History.” This article highlights the efforts of Joseph Dussome and features easy reading cultural and historical information. May be available through the Montana Historical Society.

Buffalo Voices, compiled and published by Nicholas Churchin Peterson Vrooman — Stories told by Metis and Little Shell Elders, part of Turtle Island 1492-1992, North Dakota Quarterly Vol 59 No. 4, Fall 1991, Univ. of No. Dakota, Grand Forks. Vrooman also produced a recording (cassette tape) for Smithsonian/Folkways Recordings, entitled Plains/Chippewa/Metis Music from Turtle Mountain. The recording includes drumming, Chansons, and 1992 era Rock & Roll by Tribal Musicians. It is distributed by Koch Int’l for the Smithsonian, and can be ordered from music stores.

Strange Empire, by Joseph Kinsey Howard—The definitive but cumbersome history of the Métis, Canadian Métis, Little Shell Tribe, Turtle Mountain and Pembina and related groups, reprinted in 1994 by Minnesota Historical Society Press with a new introduction by Nicholas Vrooman.

Medicine Fiddle—by Michael Loukinen, produced by Northern Michigan University, 1992. This film (videotape) features Metis and Chippewa music dancing and spirituality, and contains interviews with musicians from several tribes and bands in the Western Great Lakes Red River area. Available through Up North Films, Northern Michigan University, 331 Thomas, Fine Arts Bldg, Marquette MI 49855, telephone (906) 227-2041.

External links[edit]

The Little Shell Tribe of Montana

The Whole Country was....One Robe: The Little Shell Tribe's America [Paperback] A definitive detailed history. Nicholas C. P. Vrooman (Author)