Interior Department Says No Plans to Remove Mashpee Wampanoag Land From Federal Trust

Posted on: July 25, 2018, 04:30h. 

Last updated on: July 25, 2018, 01:24h.

A US Interior Department official told a congressional committee this week that the federal agency has no plans to remove land owned by the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe in Massachusetts from its federal trust.

Interior Department Mashpee Wampanoag
Mashpee Wampanoag Chairman Cedric Cromwell (left) says the US Interior Department acted accordingly in taking his tribe’s land into federal trust. (Image: Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe)

Bureau of Indian Affairs Acting Director Darryl LaCounte testified before the House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs. He said the 321 acres taken into trust in 2015 by the Department of the Interior (DOI) remains there. The Bureau of Indian Affairs falls within the Interior Department.

Asked whether the DOI might be considering removing the land from the trust due to a federal judge’s 2016 decision that concluded the agency erred in recognizing the acreage as sovereign grounds, LaCounte replied, “Not to my knowledge. It is in trust right now.”

The congressional hearing was to discuss the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act, a federal bill introduced by Sen. Edward Markey (D-Massachusetts) and cosponsored by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts). The legislation seeks to formally conclude the land trust dilemma and fully authorize the land as sovereign.

The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe is trying to build a $1 billion casino resort in Taunton known as First Light. The Native American group has partnered with Genting Group, a casino conglomerate headquartered in Malaysia with properties around the world including the US.  

Who’s to Trust

The Mashpee Wampanoag land case is being watched closely by Native American groups across the country. Its outcome has the potential to greatly alter the future of how land sovereignty is determined.

The DOI accepted the newly acquired land into trust despite the Mashpee Tribe only receiving federal recognition in 2007. Under the Indian Reorganization Act, only tribes recognized prior to 1934 are to qualify to have new property placed into federal trust.

Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Chairman Cedric Cromwell told the congressional committee that it’s simply “a technical issue” that the tribe was “mysteriously” removed from being listed under federal recognition many decades ago. He maintains that the tribe has ties to Massachusetts that goes back more than a century.

Taunton property owners sued after the DOI took in the land. US District Court Judge William Young ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in 2016, essentially suspending construction on the Taunton casino.

LaCounte said the DOI and Bureau of Indian Affairs is still reviewing the court decision despite it coming two years ago.

Mass Concerns

The Massachusetts Gaming Commission (MGC) is waiting to find out the final outcome of the long-drawn Mashpee case. It’s held off on issuing the third and final commercial casino license under the state’s Expanded Gaming Act on concerns that the southeastern region would become oversaturated if First Light is allowed to proceed.

Rush Street Gaming, the sole bidder in 2015 for the Region C license in 2015, has asked the MGC to reconsider its proposal. The gaming agency voted 4-1 against the plan in 2016.

Rush Street wants to build a $667 million casino at the Brockton Fairgrounds, which is just 10 miles from the Mashpee’s land in Taunton.