US House Passes Spending Bill That Protects Massachusetts Tribal Reservation

Posted on: July 28, 2020, 07:53h. 

Last updated on: July 28, 2020, 10:29h.

The United States House of Representatives passed a massive spending package last Friday. That includes an amendment that would block the Trump administration from denying a Massachusetts tribe sovereign land.

Massachusetts Mashpee Wampanoag Joe Kennedy
Massachusetts Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D) is one step closer to convincing Congress to override the Interior Department and President Donald Trump in deciding how to handle Native American land matters. (Image: Greg Nash/AP)

The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe successfully had the US Department of the Interior (DOI) place 321 acres of land into federal trust in 2015. The property includes 151 acres in the city of Taunton, and 170 acres in the town of Mashpee.

The Native American group wants to build a $1 billion casino resort in Taunton, and the 2015 DOI decision paved the project’s path forward. However, in 2018, the DOI — now under President Donald Trump’s rule — rescinded its 2015 verdict and erased the land from the federal registrar.

The amendment was introduced by Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-Mass.). The 39-year-old says Trump has used the COVID-19 pandemic to shield his administration’s efforts to discredit the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe.

In recent months, the Trump administration has used the COVID-19 pandemic as cover to try to steal the Tribe’s land and define their people out of existence,” Kennedy said. “This amendment will put an immediate stop to those dangerous efforts.”

Headquartered in Cape Cod, the tribe claims ancestral roots to the two parcels of land it wants deemed sovereign territory. The Mashpee Wampanoags say their ancestors dined with the pilgrims during the first Thanksgiving in 1621.

Kennedy III, who is the son of former Rep. Joseph Kennedy, grandson of former US Sen. and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, and grand-nephew of 35th President John F. Kennedy, is challenging incumbent Democratic Sen. Ed Markey in the state’s 2020 Senate race.

Trump Reverses Obama Policy

The process of taking land into federal trust is one of the more complicated legal matters regarding tribal sovereignty.

“Between 1887 and 1934, the federal government took nearly two-thirds of reservation lands from the tribes without compensation. The trust process was subsequently created as a tool to help tribes regain original land bases,” explains the National Conference of State Legislatures website.

The primary legal dilemma is deciding whether tribes that were federally recognized after the 1934 passage of the Indian Reorganization Act qualify to have newly acquired lands placed on the registrar. Under the Obama administration, they did. Under the Trump administration, they do not.

In June, a US district court judge ordered the DOI to reconsider its rescinding of taking the Mashpee land into trust.

Lawmakers Differ

In negotiating Kennedy’s amendment on the House floor earlier this month, the Massachusetts representative lambasted the Trump administration, saying it has “treated tribes with nothing but contempt.”

“We have a responsibility to do what is right, to learn from the mistakes of generations before us, to recognize that this land wasn’t land to be discovered or to be taken. It belonged to tribes like the Mashpee long before the Pilgrims arrived,” opined Kennedy.

The tribe was developing its $1 billion integrated resort casino with Malaysian-based Genting Group. The DOI’s reversal resulted, the tribe and Genting claims, in a nearly $500 million loss.

US Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) opposed the Kennedy amendment.

If you disagree with the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, be my guest, change it,” Gosar declared. “But that is not what we do. We follow the law. The law is the law. Do you really want to vote for a $500 million bailout for a foreign gaming corporation?”

The Democratic-controlled House nonetheless passed the amendment, and it now tags along with the spending package to the Senate.