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  • Great Falls Tribune

    Little Shell tribe celebrates opening of new food distribution program

    By David Murray, Great Falls Tribune,


    Tribal leaders, government officials, and honored guests gathered at a cornflower blue warehouse Thursday to celebrate the grand opening of a new food distribution warehouse where tribal elders, veterans, disabled and disadvantaged families are now able to get canned fruit and vegetables, frozen meat, and shelf stable dry goods to stock their pantry shelves.

    The warehouse opening and kick-off of a new food distribution program is a direct result of the recent federal recognition of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians. Once known as the Landless Chippewa Indians of Montana, the Little Shell people have struggled since the early 1890s to gain federal recognition and thus become eligible for state and federal subsidies. The State of Montana recognized the Little Shell tribe in 2003, but it took until the end of 2019 before the federal government followed suit.

    That move, endorsed by both Montana Sens. Jon Tester (D) and Steve Daines (R), opened the gateway for increased federal assistance to the tribe’s 6,600 members, a majority of whom live in central Montana. Although the Little Shell do not currently have an autonomous Indian reservation, their tribal headquarters and cultural center are in Great Falls.

    “It has been huge,” said Little Shell Chairman Gerald Gray of the effect of federal recognition for the tribe. “When we were first recognized by the State there wasn’t a whole lot of opportunities out there for us. We were literally having quarterly meetings where we were passing the hat trying just to survive, but after federal recognition the flood gates opened. We have more opportunity with HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) for housing, and we opened a clinic at IHS (Indian Health Services) runs for us. That was a huge deal, especially during the pandemic.”

    Providing greater food security for the Little Shell people has been a goal of the administration for many years. Gray said the tribal government had long held a vision of providing food assistance to its members – a vison made more critical by current economic circumstances.

    “This building came to fruition and now we’re able to provide it,” Gray said of the food assistance, “especially right now in today’s economy with inflation going up. A lot of people are having a hard time asking themselves, do I pay the rent or do I eat. If we’re able to help them out with a little bit of food, we are so grateful to be able to do that.”

    The tribe’s food distribution program is exclusive to enrolled Little Shell tribal members living within the four-county service area established by the tribe’s federal recognition bill. These include enrolled Little Shell members living in Cascade, Hill, Glacier, and Blaine counties.

    The program is only available to registered members of the Little Shell tribe recognized under the USDA's (U.S. Department of Agriculture’s) Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR). The FDPIR program provides food to income-eligible households living on Indian reservations, and to American Indian households residing in approved areas near reservations. According to USDA statistics nearly 84,000 people from 276 federally recognized tribes currently receive monthly FDPIR food packages.

    The tribe is not making deliveries of food right now, but income qualified tribal members can come to the distribution warehouse located at 1301 Stuckey Road just off the Northwest Bypass in west Great Falls once a month to receive a food package. Gray said the tribe staged a “soft opening” at the food distribution warehouse at the end of March. More than 60 families came to the warehouse pick up food boxes.

    “That was just by word of mouth,” Gray said. “Now as things start to open up officially and more word gets out there, I think it’s going to impact quite a few people.”

    Participants are limited by income levels set by the federal government and must reside within the four-county area established by the Little Shell’s federal recognition bill. Once approved, tribal members may select from a wide range of products which include: frozen ground beef, beef roast, chicken, pork chops, canned meats, poultry, and fish • canned and frozen fruits & vegetables, beans, soups, and spaghetti sauce • pastas, cereals, rice, and other grains • cheese, egg mix, shelf stabilized milk, nonfat dry milk, and evaporated milk • flour, cornmeal, bakery mix, and crackers • dried beans and dehydrated potatoes • juices and dried fruit • peanuts and peanut butter.

    In the future the Little Shell tribe hopes to offer a selection of traditional native foods such as bison, blue cornmeal, wild salmon, catfish, and traditionally harvested wild rice to their offerings. For a complete list of foods available for FDPIR visit the USDA Foods Available List at

    “The tribe gets two buffalo tags through the State of Montana each year,” Gray said of the traditional foods prospect. “If we’re selected to harvest those buffalo they are processed, we turn them into hamburger, and we’ll give that out to our members through this program.”

    The tribal chairman added that while the FDPIR program is specific to Little Shell members, the increased availability of donated food is an asset to central Montana's entire community.

    “It takes the burden off other food distributions programs in Great Falls so they can offer more to other people,” Gray noted. “It's kind of a spreading of the wealth. Our tribal members will no longer have to go to take advantage of those programs.”

    There is an application process for tribal members to be eligible for the food distribution program. Applicants must meet federal income guidelines and cannot accept benefits from SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and FDPIR at the same time. Gray said the application process for FDPIR assistance is simple and quick.

    “There is an application they have to fill out,” Gray said. “They can come here (1301 Stuckey Road) or go to tribal office (511 Central Ave W, Great Falls) and fill out the application and we’ll let them know right away.”

    During the opening for the new Little Shell Food Distribution Warehouse tribal elder Daniel Pocha conducted a traditional smudging ceremony. After lighting a sage bundle that burned within a distinguished oyster shell, Pocha read from a prayer written by Lakota tribal elder Francis White Bird during the dedication of the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington D.C. in 1982

    “We prey to Grandmother Earth who covers herself with the color green,” Pocha read. "Grandmother provides us with water, grass, leaves, the four-legged, the winged, and the living beings in the water. You give everything to us, and you take everything away.”

    “The center of our environment is the body, and at the center of that is our heart,” the prayer continued. “There we hold our love for creations and the creator, and for all that he made. (We ask for) compassion for each other so we can help and heal one another. We ask for generosity so we can be generous with our time, generous with material goods, and generous with our relationships.”

    It was an apt dedication for a place where the hungry can now come to receive food.

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