Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Lands in Dispute

Sep 13, 2018

The Wampanoag Tribal headquarters in Mashpee. The tribe's claim to federal lands are currently being disputed.
Credit Sarah Tan / WCAI

The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe has been entangled in a legal conflict with the federal government over its native lands in Taunton and Mashpee. Last week, the Department of Interior released a finding on the tribe’s status, saying its lands do not qualify to be held in trust.

In many ways, the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe have been undergoing a renaissance in the last few years. There are plans to build an affordable housing development for members, and plans to create a solar powered microgrid. Seniors and adults stream into their new headquarters to learn Wampanoag, a language once nearly lost. 

But now, all these plans and programs may be in danger. In 2015, the federal government put 321 acres of land in Mashpee and Taunton into trust and designated it for the Wampanoag reservation. Land in trust means the federal government owns the property instead of the state, which means the tribe can self-govern and receive federal funding. The recent Department of Interior’s finding essentially reversed this 2015 decision. Baird said the fact that they're now fighting for their land seems like a cruel reversal, given that the Wampanoag once gave land to the Pilgrims to form Plymouth colony. 

"We’re the last surviving of those tribes on the mainland, this is the 400th anniversary of the landing of the Mayflower, and the tribe now finds ourselves on the opposite end of the spectrum, asking the white government to make sure we have land under our feet," she said. 

Two years ago, the Mashpee Wampanoag announced plans to build a casino on tribal lands in Taunton. That prompted a legal battle with developers and residents who opposed the project, with the tribe’s claim to their federal lands hanging in the balance. The result of that lawsuit is the finding that the tribe’s lands do not qualify to be held in trust, because they were not federally recognized in 1934, under the Indian Reorganization Act.

In an effort to preserve the tribe’s land, Representative Bill Keating has authored a bill that would override any decision by the Department of Interior, but the bill has not yet been voted on. 

"We feel that the tribe of the First Thanksgiving clearly is a legitimate tribe," Keating said. "We put the bill in because we were hearing rumors and had sources that were indicating the Trump Administration was considering this. So we put it in as a safety valve, hoping it was never necessary, but now it is."

In the meantime, the lands currently remain as they are because there is no legal mechanism to remove land from federal trust. But the decision endangers the tribe’s claim and a future they’ve only just started to see. Robert Anderson, an American Indian Law professor at the University of Washington said this case has put the Wampoag in legal limbo.

"Only congress has the authority to take the land out of trust. This is uncharted territory, in terms of what happens next," he said. 

He added that land in trust disputes with tribes across the country are not uncommon because of the process of how tribes became federally recognized. But in the past and under the Obama administration, rulings have been made in favor of the tribes to keep the land in trust. He isn’t surprised with the Trump administration’s decision, though.

"It shows a deference to state rights and disfavoring of federal obligations to Indian tribes nationally," he said. 

But David Tennant, a lawyer for the plaintiffs in Taunton who brought the case against the Mashpee Wampanoag, said they feel vindicated by the department’s decision.

"The citizens are not anti-tribe and they’re not necessarily even anti-casino. But what they’ve always been is in support of the rule of law that says the federal government has to abide by the law," Tennant said. "This is about federal agency overreach, not about the Mashpee, not about the tribe, not about the casino, it’s all about keeping the federal government within the legal strictures imposed."

He said a more liberal reading of what it meant to be federally recognized before the Indian Reorganization Act had been taken by the Obama administration.

"The facts just do not support granting land in trust for the Mashpee. They were not under federal jurisdiction, that’s not a political jurisdiction, that’s not the Trump administration, that’s the historical record," he said. 

Nonetheless, Cedric Cromwell, the chairman of the tribe, said the decision feels like an attack, but that they will continue to fight for an appeal to the finding.

"We’re still trying to focus on moving forward, but there’s so much confusion," Cromwell said. "It’s a really confusing, chaotic, hostile, scary environment for my tribe."

The Mashpee tribe’s fate now rests in the hands of lawyers and members of Congress, and many other tribes with federal lands in dispute will be watching to see what happens next.