Band of Indians looks for federal recognition as a tribeFor 120 years, a small band of American Indians in North Dakota have fought a political battle for legitimacy — a recognition they say is still owed them by the government.
By: By Kristen M. Daum, Forum Communications Co., The Jamestown Sun
For 120 years, a small band of American Indians in North Dakota have fought a political battle for legitimacy — a recognition they say is still owed them by the government.
The pursuit of the Little Shell Pembina Band of North Dakota began with a territorial claim to the land.
But in the decades since, it has evolved into a desire to seek economic development in an age of big business amid prosperity in the Oil Patch.
Members of the tribe sat down with The Forum recently to share their story, which they said government officials still ignore.
“We want our rights recognized and we want to conduct our business the way it should be,” tribal member Edward “Doc” Johannesson said. “We’ll work with the state and the feds, but they have to be willing to work with us. They’ve abused their power long enough.”
According to the chief’s son Keith Delorme:
The Little Shell tribe, a Pembina band of the Chippewa Indians, originally held claim over a massive portion of the Red River Valley region.
Their territory included an area as far east as Thief River Falls, Minn., as far west as Kenmare, N.D., and as far north as Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba.
As American settlers pushed farther west into the Great Plains, the Red Lake and Pembina bands sold their land in the immediate valley to the government in 1863.
Less than 30 years later, the government sought to buy the remaining 10 million acres of the Little Shell tribe’s land in what is now northern North Dakota.
Government officials proposed a price of 10 cents an acre, or a sale of $1 million.
But Chief Little Shell III refused to sell, feeling the tribe deserved $1.25 an acre.
Nonetheless, the government instituted a 32-man commission made up of a mix of other Indians, who secured the sale.
The deal — which ultimately became known as the “Ten-Cent Treaty” — established the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation for Chippewa Indians and left the Little Shell Band without any land.
The tribe’s members said since they never agreed to the sale, they still retain the rights to the land that the government stole in the “fraudulent” deal.
“We believe we still hold title to a good portion of North Dakota,” Delorme said.
Delorme’s father, Chief Ron Kayance Delorme, has been to the federal courts more than once to seek the government’s acknowledgment of the sordid past.
Attempts to secure adequate compensation for Little Shell’s descendants have been unsuccessful, Ron Delorme said.
The Little Shell Pembina Band of North Dakota is not a federally recognized tribe under the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Keith Delorme said the federal government views the band as one absorbed by the Turtle Mountain Band through the 1892 treaty — but the tribe continues to see themselves as independent Chippewa of the Pembina Band.
Officials from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Turtle Mountain Band did not return messages seeking comment last week.
During their pursuit for recognition, the Little Shell tribe got caught up in a scam — which Johannesson said amounted to a confusion of very similar names.
In 2003, then-Insurance Commissioner Jim Poolman issued a cease-and-desist order against the Little Shell tribe for allegedly selling tribal memberships and insurance to non-Indians.
Ron Delorme never commented on his tribe’s alleged ties to the scam when the news was reported by The Forum.
“Ours is the ‘Little Shell Pembina Band of North Dakota’; the scam is ‘Little Shell Nation of North America’ — they confuse it very easily,” Johannesson said recently.
The tribe claims no involvement in the scam and has even assisted the FBI in straightening out the confusion, he added.
Seeking a future
Members of the Little Shell tribe said all they want now is the same rights afforded other Indian tribes when it comes to gaming, hunting, fishing and business dealings.
Specifically, the Delormes and Johannesson said they’d like to pursue going-green projects or set up casinos.
“It’s a whole way of life that’s gone and that’s never going to come back to us,” Keith Delorme said of the past. “So, I think we have the right to economic development and get a piece of the pie off our land that was never ceded.”
Delorme said the Little Shell band’s original claim of North Dakota included a half-million acres of what is now the Turtle Mountain reservation and Fort Berthold — an area on the edge of the booming Oil Patch.
“(North Dakota) wouldn’t be one of the richest states in the country if they weren’t on Little Shell land,” Johannesson said. “Now, shouldn’t Little Shell get a percentage? We’re not asking for much. We’re asking to be able to continue on with our life.”
“All the Bakken oil — give us 4 percent of the gross proceeds. That’s not asking for much in a vast oil field that we own,” he added.
The Delormes and Johannesson said they’d rather negotiate with government officials than fight an expensive and lengthy battle in a court system they don’t trust anyway.
“We’ll be happy and they can be happy,” Johannesson said. “We’re not trying to hurt them — but don’t keep trying to put us down when we’re in the right.”
The Little Shell tribe has registered a nonprofit corporation with the North Dakota Secretary of State’s office. However, it’s listed as “not in good standing” because the tribe has yet to file their annual paperwork, the office said.
Kristen Daum is a reporter at The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.