Massachusetts Tribe Faces Reservation Loss
The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe of Massachusetts is set to lose its reservation status after it applied to be granted a license to build a casino resort. The rescinding of the designation has been blasted by local Senators, who claim that the move was ordered by President Donald Trump.
According to the Mashpee Wampanoag Chairman Cedric Cromwell, the tribe was notified by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) last Friday that more than 300 acres of land would not be allowed into federal trust. Despite the ruling, the tribe still owns the land.
The recent decision made by the First Circuit Court of Boston found that the tribe failed to meet the definition of “Indian” because it wasn’t recognized during the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. Therefore, its land wasn’t eligible for federal trust, and the Department of the Interior (DOI) was forced to enforce disestablishment.
While a spokesperson for the DOI has ascertained that the move will not affect the benefits that the tribe and its members can claim from the government, some have called into question the motives of the administration. Many believe that opposition to the tribe center on its casino and resort plans.
This is because the casino would be built close to a number of casinos that are currently operated by confirmed Trump allies and lobbyists. According to Jean-Lux Pierite of the North American Indian Center, the move is the latest sign that Trump is waging a war with the tribes, calling this incident a “power grab and a land grab”.
Cromwell has argued that the fight is far from over, but if the decision stands, it would destroy the hard work that the tribe has spent years undertaking. This includes the development of an independent judicial system, a police force, a Wampanoag-language school, and the construction of a tribal housing development.
“Our land is sacred. It’s where our people receive health services. It’s where our children attend our language immersion school. It’s where we are building houses for our citizens. Taking our land is a direct attack on our culture and our way of living.”– Cedric Cromwell, Chairman, Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe
The 300 acres in question have only recently been officially acquired by the tribe. About half of the land is in the town of Mashpee, while the other half is in Taunton near the Rhode Island state border. Taunton is the proposed site for the $1 billion First Light casino.
As the acreage must be in a federal trust before a gaming facility can be built on it, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission (MGC) is awaiting the outcome of the dispute. It currently has one full-scale casino license remaining to award the southeastern region counties of the state.
What Motivated the Trump Administration?
Since the beginning of the Trump presidency, a number of cases involving tribal disestablishment have gone through the federal courts. As a former owner and operator of casinos, Donald Trump has a documented history of trying to destroy and deride Native American competitors, and he continues to have support from powerful casino interests.
When Democratic House Representative William Keating introduced legislation to protect the tribe’s reservation as trust land last year, Trump implored Republicans to oppose the bill.
“Republicans shouldn’t vote for HR 312, a special interest casino bill backed by Elizabeth (Pocahontas) Warren.” Trump tweeted. “It is unfair and doesn’t treat Native Americans equally!”
Regardless, 47 House Republicans backed the bill and passed the house 275-126. Meanwhile, the bill has stalled in the Senate. It remains one of a number of ways that the tribe can overturn the ruling against its reservation status. It could also appeal the 1st Circuit Court’s decision to the US Supreme Court.
As for why Trump would get involved, journalist David Dayen pointed out that Trump was likely intervening on behalf of a powerful ally, Matthew Schlapp. As well as being the president of the American Conservative Union, Schlapp is a lobbyist for the Twin River Management Group.
Twin River operates two casinos in Rhode Island, 26 miles from Taunton where the Mashpee Wampanoag First Light casino is proposed to be built. According to many interests, the decision may set a dangerous precedent and could threaten the survival of tribal casinos across the nation.
Last year, the Interior Department cited the discovery of endangered bird species in Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians-land in order to withdraw trust status from the Californian tribe. This prompted Congress to step in and declare that the land would be held in trust for the tribe to build housing.
A number of tribal casino matters have recently called for federal government interference, including a land contest between two tribes in North Carolina.