US Rep. Joe Kennedy Introduces Legislation to Protect Tribal Lands, Block DOI From Reversing Decisions

Posted on: June 12, 2020, 01:00h. 

Last updated on: June 11, 2020, 04:15h.

United States Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-Massachusetts) has filed legislation with the House of Representatives that seeks to protect tribal lands taken into the federal trust by the Department of the Interior (DOI).

Joe Kennedy Massachusetts casino tribe
Rep. Joe Kennedy III is seeking to protect tribal land in his home state of Massachusetts from the federal government. (Image: Leigh Vogel/Getty)

Earlier this week, US District Judge Paul Friedman in Washington, DC, ordered the Interior Department to reconsider its rescinding of taking into trust 321 acres of land in Taunton owned by the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe in Massachusetts.

The DOI said in 2018 that it erred in 2015 in designating the land as sovereign territory. One of two federally recognized tribes in Massachusetts, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe is now being assisted by a member of the state’s most famous and powerful family.

While Friedman’s order requires the Interior Department to review its decisions, Kennedy is seeking to pass legislation that would prevent tribal lands that have been placed on the federal registrar from ever being removed in the first place.

In the midst of a pandemic that has uniquely threatened Native Americans, tribes should be focused on caring for their communities, not fighting back against a hateful, ignorant Administration,” Kennedy said, in a statement. “If President Trump is willing to threaten the very existence of the Tribe that welcomed the Pilgrims to our shores, no tribal lands in this country are safe from his attacks.

“Under the Tribal Reservation Pandemic Protection Act, we can ensure our nation’s priorities lie with the Native Americans who deserve our protection,” the representative concluded. The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe wants to build an Indian casino resort on the land in question. The project, if approved by federal and state officials, could cost as much as $1 billion.

DOI Controversy

Legal matters surrounding tribal gaming have long been complex. The Interior Department under the last two presidential administrations has only made it worse.

During President Barack Obama’s administration, the DOI decided that all federally recognized tribes that can prove historical ties to lands recently acquired can have such properties placed into trust. Under the Trump administration, Interior said the only tribes that qualify were those recognized in 1934 when the Indian Reorganization Act was passed.

The Mashpee Wampanoag has remained in a state of flux as a result. Its congressional delegation is trying to help the Native American gain its legal footing in Taunton. Along with Kennedy, Rep. William Keating (D) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D) have supported the Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act. The bill passed the House in May of 2019, but has stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Senate Odds

Kennedy III, a grandson of the Senator and US Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, and grandnephew of President John F. Kennedy, is seeking to upgrade his political influence in DC. His father, Joseph II, also served in Congress.

The 39-year-old is running against incumbent Sen. Ed Markey (D) for the seat that he’s held since 2013. PredictIt bettors believe Kennedy will win the Massachusetts Democratic senate primary on September 1.

Kennedy’s shares of winning are trading at 69 cents, and Markey at 33 cents. The winner will almost certainly win the November election (Democratic shares at 95 cents, GOP shares at five cents).