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 tribe is also seeking federal recognition from the US Bureau of Indian Affairs. The tribe is named after its nineteenth-century leader, Esens, known as "Little Shell".

Due to conflicts with federal authorities in the 19th century, the Little Shell Chippewa Tribe does not have a reservation or land base. Members live in various parts of Montana and elect a government of a chairman and Tribal Council according to their constitution. 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 more than 100 years, many members and their descendants live outside of Montana.


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, driving out the Dakota and probably other tribes native to the areas now known as Alberta, Manitoba, and Ontario in Canada, and Minnesota and Montana in the United States.


The Little Shell Band of Chippewa Indians are part of the historical Pembina Band of Chippewa Indians, first recorded by European settlers in documents of 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 men, mostly fur trappers, had married into Ojibwa families.

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. Others migrated north and west into Saskatchewan and Alberta, and then later made their way back south into Montana.

The Little Shell tribe opened a new cultural center in May 2014, located outside Great Falls, Montana.[1]

Esens/Little Shell[edit]

In 1864, the tribal leader, Esens, also known as Little Shell, walked out of further negotiations and refused to amend the original treaty. In 1892 he 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 Porter J. McCumber of North Dakota was sent to meet with the Pembina Band of Chippewa Indians. During the first meeting, when the senator 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, which became 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 Little Shell before the US Senate. Senator McCumber agreed with John Burke that the treaty was a fraud.[citation needed] Nonetheless, the US Senate ratified the treaty after McCumber died in 1905. The federal officials told the Little Shell people to sign the treaty or risk starving to death. Members of the tribe became nomadic. Several people moved to France.[citation needed]

Additional information[edit]

The name of the tribe is "The Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians of Montana," often shortened to "Little Shell." The current population of enrolled tribal members is approximately 5,400.

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.

Since the late 20th century, the people of the tribe have reorganized and gained state recognition. They have a 35,000-sq. foot office complex in Great Falls. The tribe has worked to satisfy documentation requirements to gain recognition by the US Bureau of Indian Affairs.


The Little Shell Tribe is governed by a constitutionally defined elected Tribal Council. The Tribal Chairman is also elected. Four council seats are up for election every 4 years and 3 council seats every 2 years, in a largely mail-in balloting process. The tribal council meets regularly in Great Falls at least monthly, and quarterly meetings are held every quarter, in efforts to keep tribal members involved and informed.

The Tribe has maintained its integrity throughout the 20th century. The constitution has been revised, most recently in 2016. The government, social structure and culture have been maintained. Gov. Stan Stephens granted state recognition to the tribe. The state recognition process formally incorporated the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians of Montana.

The Council are unpaid. As a group, which is not federally-recognized, the Little Shell do not qualify for federally funded educational or government support services such as housing and medical facilities, typically provided tribes recognized by the United States government. Little Shell Tribal members can obtain some services available in urban centers as well as public benefits available to all Montana residents.

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 November.
  • 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 history of the Metifs, including cultural issues, early photographs, political action descriptions and other historical data, from a Canadian perspective.
  • Verne Dusenberry, "Waiting For A Day That Never Comes," Montana The Magazine of Western History. This article highlights the efforts of Joseph Dussome in organizing the tribe.
  • Nicholas Church Peterson Vrooman, compiler. "Buffalo Voices: Stories told by Metis and Little Shell Elders," Turtle Island 1492-1992, North Dakota Quarterly Vol 59 No. 4, Fall 1991
  • Nicholas C. P. Vrooman, The Whole Country was....One Robe: The Little Shell Tribe's America
  • Nicholas C. P. Vrooman, Plains/Chippewa/Metis Music from Turtle Mountain, Smithsonian/Folkways Recordings
  • Joseph Kinsey Howard, Strange Empire, Minnesota Historical Society, reprint 1994, with introduction by Nicholas Vrooman. History of the Métis, Canadian Métis, Little Shell Tribe, Turtle Mountain and Pembina and related groups.
  • Michael Loukinen, Medicine Fiddle (1992), film produced by Northern Michigan University. It features Metis and Chippewa music, dancing and spirituality. Also has interviews with musicians from several tribes and bands in the Western Great Lakes Red River area.
  • Levi, Sister M. Carolissa, CHIPPEWA INDIANS of Yesterday and Today(1956).

External links[edit]