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Mont. tribe seeks to turn corner in its history

Associated Press Modified: November 18, 2012 at 1:16 pm •  Published: November 18, 2012

Also during that period, the tribe's finances started to unravel when accounting problems surfaced under former chairman John Sinclair. The state of Montana suspended grants for a tobacco prevention program, and economic development funds were put on hold. That translated into an $867,000 financial hit for the Little Shell.

Political turmoil ensued, and dueling elections were held that resulted in two groups claiming to be the tribe's rightful leader — one under Sinclair's control and another under the leadership of Great Falls businessman John Gilbert.

Gilbert's side prevailed when the matter was finally settled last December by a three-judge panel of tribal law experts. Sinclair, who could not be reached for comment for this story, said at the time he was unlikely to run again.

The elections earlier this month were the first since the political dispute was settled. Former state Sen. Joe Troplia, who helped oversee the process, said that with the election the tribe appears to have finally quelled its internal rivalries.

Incoming chairman Gray, a vice president at a Billings advertising agency and vice chairman under Gilbert, said the strife during Sinclair's tenure revealed weaknesses within the tribe that need to be fixed. That included a flawed constitution and few financial controls.

Gray said the tribe will be renewing its drive for federal recognition, which could bring housing and education assistance and other help in addition to land for a reservation.

Montana U.S. Sen. Jon Tester has introduced legislation to force the government to recognize the tribe. The Democrat's bill will have to be reintroduced next year if it's not acted on in the next few weeks.

Nicholas Vrooman, a Helena-based historian who wrote a book about the Little Shell that soon will be released, traces the tribe's modern-day problems to a century of federal negligence.

Without a home to call their own or resources to maintain a functioning government, Vrooman said, the tribe has long been defined by outsiders by the strife and difficulties it has faced.

But Vrooman said those problems also have helped the Little Shell reach a new level of self-understanding — including the realization they cannot wait for government help if they want to survive and move forward in the world.

"They don't need the federal government to sanction them now — to say they're legitimate. They know who they are now," he said. "The struggle for their community is the proof of their community."