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Alumnus Gerald Gray chairs Little Shell Tribal Council

gerald grayA flip of the coin led University of Montana Western alumnus Gerald Gray to Dillon, and he says it was a stroke of good luck.

“It was between Western and Northern, so I asked my wife whether she wanted to live in Havre or Dillon,” Gray says of choosing a college in Montana. “We flipped a coin and it was Dillon. I was so glad to be there though. I had the best time studying and living in Dillon. Both of my children were born there.”

Gray earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education at Western Montana College (now Montana Western) and started his professional career working for several years in public schools, following in the steps of his parents who were both educators. Gray says he owes much to his time on the Montana Western campus.

“I hold very fond memories of my time at Western,” Gray says. "...I will always be proud to say I attended Western Montana College as the size of the school made a world of difference and the people there were awesome.”

“I hold very fond memories of my time at Western,” Gray says. “I had some really great professors who not only were teachers of mine but became friends. They were always willing to sit and listen to the stories I had as a young man. I will always be proud to say I attended Western Montana College as the size of the school made a world of difference and the people there were awesome.”

He also says the experience of being the only Native American in his class at UMW was a great opportunity to increase awareness to future educators.

“I told my class, all of you are going to touch an Indian child’s life at some point in your career,” Gray remembers.

After working in Great Falls and Box Elder, Mont., Gray moved to Albuquerque, N.M. to join his brother’s advertising agency, G&G Advertising. Six years later, Gray and his wife pined for their native Montana and soon moved to Billings, where Gray’s brother opened a G&G Advertising branch office.

Originally from Rocky Boy, Mont., Gray is a member of the Little Shell tribe. The Little Shell people were originally part of the Pembina Band of Chippewa and had their ancestral homeland in South Dakota, North Dakota and Canada. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the tribe lost their land in a treaty to the United States government. The treaty undervalued their land by $.90 per acre.

The federal government has never officially acknowledged the Little Shell people, and although they are recognized by the state of Montana, the Little Shell still do not have federal recognition or a reservation. The tribe is currently based out of Great Falls, Mont.

In 2009, a financial scandal hit the Little Shell tribe, ultimately costing $867,000 in economic development funds and tobacco prevention money. Unsatisfied with the current leadership and lack of federal recognition, Gray and several other members of the tribe formed an alliance to begin the process of reform.

“It’s made us a really strong tribe,” Gray explains. “We haven’t had the trappings of the reservation. We’ve had to do it on our own. It made us stronger. We still gather as a people. Always have. We haven’t lost that identity at all.”

“The federal recognition process wasn’t happening like I wanted and so I ran for tribal council,” Gray says. “There was an attitude that ‘no one cares about us so we can do whatever we want.’ But the members do care and we said it wasn’t going to be run like that. We’re going to do it right.”

Gray eventually became the vice president and was then elected chairman in 2012. The tribe soon began working towards reform, adopting a new election ordinance to ensure fair and transparent elections, continuing work on a visitor and cultural center and beginning the process of forming a constitutional convention. The all-volunteer tribal council faces many challenges, but are intent on pursuing plans to generate income to the tribe and use the money to purchase a business and Great Falls to fund tribal scholarships, winterizing projects for the elderly, care for veterans and more.

Gray says federal recognition is key to the tribe’s future success.

“I believe we’re within a year of becoming federally recognized and then it’s a whole new ballgame,” he says. “We will develop a healthcare system and a school. I’m tired of being forgotten for 100 years. It’s not about what we’re owed; it’s just the right thing to do and the government needs to honor that.”

Gray says, although the tribe is fighting for federal recognition, the lack of support and challenges of the tribe’s history have only made the Little Shell people stronger.

“It’s made us a really strong tribe,” Gray explains. “We haven’t had the trappings of the reservation. We’ve had to do it on our own. It made us stronger. We still gather as a people. Always have. We haven’t lost that identity at all.”

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