Wampanoag Aquinnah Tribe Attacks Bill to Restore Reservation and Casino Hopes to Sister Tribe, Mashpee

Posted on: January 30, 2019, 04:55h. 

Last updated on: January 30, 2019, 04:55h.

The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) has denounced a federal bill that would restore its sister tribe’s right to call land in Massachusetts its sovereign reservation.

Wampanoag Aquinnah
Aquinnah chairperson Cheryl Andrews-Maltais (front) said Wednesday that the tribe cannot support the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act, despite the two tribes’ close ethnic and cultural ties, because it wasn’t fair. (Image: Josh Reynolds/AP)

Last year, the Department of the Interior reversed an Obama-era decision that had taken land into trust for the Mashpee Wampanoag as the tribe’s sovereign reservation. The reversal not only scuttled the Mashpee’s dream of building a $1 billion casino, leaving it seriously in debt to its financial backer, Genting Malaysia, but also threatens its right to self-governance.

Massachusetts Democrats are backing a bill that would restore the original decision and safeguard the Mashpee lands, but Aquinnah chairman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais said Wednesday that her tribe cannot support the legislation, despite the Aquinnah’s close ethnic and cultural ties to the Mashpee.

Because the Aquinnah are not included in the legislation, their own homeland in Martha’s Vineyard could be placed in jeopardy, claimed Andrews-Maltais in a letter to the Massachusetts Gaming Commission this week.

“While we remain empathetic to the legal challenges facing our sister tribe, the Mashpee Wampanoag, as introduced, the legislation has the very real potential to have a serious adverse effect on our Tribe and our sovereign right to acquire additional lands in shared Wampanoag Ancestral territory within the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,” she wrote.

“Unless and until the legislation is amended to include our tribe, we must remain adamantly opposed to its introduction and passage and have relayed our position to members of Congress co-sponsoring the bill,” added Andrews-Maltais.

Disaster for Mashpee

The Mashpee broke ground on their casino in 2016 with the backing of the state and the majority of local residents. But a group of homeowners who opposed the casino brought a legal challenge, bankrolled by the casino developer Neil Bluhm who has designs on building a casino of his own in nearby Brockton.

Lawyers for the homeowners successfully argued that the DOI erred in taking the land into trust for the Mashpee, citing a 2009 US Supreme Court ruling known as the Carcieri Decision. This held that the federal government can only take land into trust for tribes that were federally recognized at the time of the enactment of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934.

Despite claiming ancestral ties to the land and to the people who broke bread with early European settlers at the first Thanksgiving, the Mashpee were not officially recognized by the federal government until 2007 and were therefore disqualified.

‘Righting a Wrong’

Lauren Amendolara McDermott, communications director and counsel for US Rep. Bill Keating, who sponsored the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act, told The Mashpee Enterprise this week the legislation sought to “right a wrong inflicted on the Mashpee by the Trump administration, who are making motions to take their land out of trust.”

“Thankfully, the Aquinnah are not in this situation,” she added. “The congressman’s bill is specifically and narrowly designed to make sure the Mashpee are protected under these unique and imminent circumstances.”

The Aquinnah tribe, which was recognized in 1987, has casino ambitions of its own and has been pushing for years to establish an electronic bingo parlor on Martha’s Vineyard. Its plans have also faced legal challenges from residents, but in 2017 a federal appellate court ruled it had the right to proceed under the Indian Gaming Regulation Act.