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Mashpee Tribe snubbed by Interior Secretary

Interior secretary Deb Haaland
Jim Watson
Interior secretary Deb Haaland

The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe has been wading through legal battles for decades to protect their land, and frustrations boiled over this week when a top federal official visited Cape Cod, but failed to meet with the Mashpees.

Interior secretary Deb Haaland is the first Native American named to a Cabinet position in history. Native American tribes across the country have celebrated her appointment, saying it represents great hope for Indian Country.

Haaland was on the Cape this week for the Vineyard Wind groundbreaking. But she didn't meet with the Mashpee.

Tribal chairman Brian Weeden called it “a slap in the face.”

It’s customary for Native Americans to pay their respects to another tribe when they visit the area. It’s a sign of disrespect not to at least give that acknowledgment.

But the snub represents something larger in President Joe Biden's administration.

"The fact that we're going into Thanksgiving, and the fact that we went into Native American Heritage Month without this being taken care of for the first tribe that started it all, I just think their actions speak louder than their words," Weeden said.

Haaland could not be reached for comment.

The tribe’s land is technically considered a reservation. But it's in a limbo status.

They are in the middle of a lawsuit with residents in East Taunton that say they don’t like the tribe’s proposed casino in Taunton.

Right now, it’s in the Biden Administration’s court to submit a ruling to a federal judge, basically saying whether the tribe’s land — that’s 150 acres in Mashpee and 170 acres in Taunton — should be in trust or not, basically protected as a reservation.

Meanwhile, the tribe can’t go forward with their main economic engine — the casino in Taunton. They are losing out on federal grants that will help them develop housing.

Weeden's comments are a reverse from the time of the 2020 election, when tribes across the country were overwhelming in their support for President Biden over Donald Trump.

President Trump reminded Native Americans of a decade known as the termination era, when the federal government tried to assimilate tribes by disestablishing reservations. Trump actually took action to disestablish the Mashpee Wampanoag reservation, by supporting those East Taunton residents in their lawsuit.

Biden was seen as much friendlier. He actually mentioned the Mashpee tribe during the election, saying that they have been treated unfairly and that they deserve their land protected in trust. Then he nominated Haaland to secretary of interior.

Now it’s been almost a year since Biden took office, and the Mashpee tribe is still in the same place. Weeden says they haven't delivered that promise of protecting their land.

“The fact that we own half of one percent of our ancestral territory I think speak volumes," Weeden said. "It’s on this administration to really do what they promised that they were going to do.”

The Interior Department has until the end of the year to issue a ruling to the courts — whether the tribe should have a reservation or not, legally speaking.

But it’s not just Biden though. Congress could act as well.

In the past, the Congressional representative for the Cape, Coast and Islands — Bill Keating — filed a bill that would have given Congress the authority to protect specifically the Mashpee's land.

Another bill would essentially make it easier for recognized tribes across the country to have their land protected, called the Carcieri fix, which has bi-partisan support. Neither of these bills have gotten to the President's desk for his signature.

On the grand scale of national politics, the Mashpee tribe might be somewhat small compared to a massive infrastructure bill that recently passed, or economic policy as the country emerges from a pandemic. But Weeden says that he’s going to use every opportunity he can to pressure the federal government into protecting the tribe's land, and this Vineyard Wind groundbreaking was an opportunity.

Also, with President Biden coming to Nantucket for thanksgiving, Weeden has invited Biden to pay a visit to Mashpee, giving the Administration another chance to meet the native tribe on tribal lands.

Update: the original web post has been modified to correct any implication that Senator Warren attended this event.

Sam Houghton left CAI in February, 2023, to become News Editor at the Martha's Vineyard Times.
He worked at CAI since the summer of 2017. Before that, he worked at the Falmouth Enterprise, where he covered local politics.