The Mashpee Wampanoag are now highly unlikely to build their proposed casino in Taunton, Massachusetts, given that the tribe’s reservation recently was ordered “disestablished” by the Department of Interior under the direction of Interior Secretary David Bernhardt.
The federal directive means the tribe’s 321 acres must be taken out of trust unless it can somehow win a challenging legal victory or can get Congressional intervention. Tribal Council Chairman Cedric Cromwell this weekend pledged to “take action to prevent the loss of our trust status.”
The tribe continues to be federally recognized despite the order. Much of the order’s impact on the tribe is unclear.
The tribe owes Genting Malaysia $440 million for the casino giant’s prior backing of the troubled gaming project. As recently as November, Cromwell reaffirmed the casino would be built.
Cromwell learned about the new edict on Friday afternoon in a telephone call with an official from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, according to the Cape Cod Times. It comes as Cromwell is trying to lead the tribe during the fatal coronavirus outbreak.
“At 4:00 pm today — on the very day that the United States has reached a record 100,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and our Tribe is desperately struggling with responding to this devastating pandemic — the Bureau of Indian Affairs informed me that the Secretary of the Interior has ordered that our reservation be disestablished and that our land be taken out of trust,” Cromwell said in an online statement.
The tribe recently closed its Community and Government Center until further notice due to the pandemic. As of Saturday, there were 4,257 cases of coronavirus in Massachusetts. In total, 44 people have died in the Bay State.
Cromwell said he was trying to find out when the order takes effect and wants to get a clearer explanation of what it entails, the Times reported. Other tribes may also be impacted.
It was absurd,” Cromwell told the Times about the directive. “It’s like a punch in the nose from a bully.”
“Not since the termination era of the mid-twentieth century has a Secretary [of the Interior] taken action to disestablish a reservation,” Cromwell added in an online statement.
The tribal property was first put into trust in 2015 when President Barack Obama was in office. In 2018, the Department of the Interior, under President Donald Trump, reversed the decision.
For several years, the envisioned $1 billion First Light Resort & Casino in Taunton has been the subject of multiple lawsuits and proposed Congressional action. The Mashpee Wampanoags broke ground on the planned gaming property in 2018.
In February, the US First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston ruled against the tribe in a key decision. That decision upheld a lower court ruling by Judge William Young that the federal government was unauthorized to take land into trust for the tribe in 2015. A separate federal case in Washington, DC is ongoing.
“Today’s action was cruel and it was unnecessary. The Secretary is under no court order to take our land out of trust,” Cromwell said in the online statement. “He [Bernhardt] is fully aware that litigation to uphold our status as a tribe eligible for the benefits of the Indian Reorganization Act is ongoing. It begs the question, what is driving our federal trustee’s crusade against our reservation?”
Tribe Keeps Federal Recognition
In a statement to local media, Connor Swanson, an Interior Department spokesman, said the tribe remains federally recognized.
“On March 19th, the court of appeals issued its mandate, which requires Interior to rescind its earlier decision,” Swanson explained in an email to the Times. “This decision does not affect the federal recognition status of the Tribe, only Interior’s statutory authority to accept the land in trust. Rescission of the decision will return ownership of the property to the Tribe.”
Swanson also noted prior court rulings on the legal issues. “In Fall 2015, Interior issued a decision approving a trust acquisition for the Tribe. Subsequently, both a federal district court and a federal circuit court panel comprised of former Supreme Court Justice David Souter, former Chief Judge Sandra Lynch, and Senior Judge Kermit Lipez, found there to be no statutory authority for this decision,” Swanson said, according to WBUR.
Keating Condemns Interior Department
The recent order from the Interior Department and its timing during a pandemic, also led to a sharp rebuke from US Rep. Bill Keating, D-Massachusetts.
“In a time of national health and economic emergency, the Secretary of the Interior should be reaching out to help all Native American tribes,” Keating said in a statement.
This is one of the most cruel and nonsensical acts I have seen since coming to Congress. The Secretary should be ashamed,” Keating added.
Keating says that the current situation reinforces the need for the Senate to act on the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act, HR 312.
The bill would “rectify this issue,” Keating said. It would halt current litigation and reaffirm the tribe’s status. The bill is still being considered by the Senate.
Tribe Will Survive
In his statement, Cromwell points out how his tribe has “lived here since before there was a Secretary of the Interior, since before there was a State of Massachusetts, since before the Pilgrims arrived 400 years ago.”
“We have survived, we will continue to survive. These are our lands, these are the lands of our ancestors, and these will be the lands of our grandchildren,” he continued. “This Administration has come and it will go. But we will be here, always. And we will not rest until we are treated equally with other federally recognized tribes and the status of our reservation is confirmed.”