WASHINGTON – Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Leader Cedric Cromwell spoke before Congress July 24 discussing legislation that could affect their land in trust. 

Known as the “People of the First Light” the Mashpee Wampanoag assisted the Pilgrims in settling Plymouth. 

“The status of their land has been called into question, unfortunately, and we have serious concerns about the land being taken out of trust,” said Keating, who originally filed the legislation (H.R. 5244) in March of 2018. “This would result in the tribe no longer being eligible for many federal grants and assistance programs. It would also call into question inter-governmental agreements.”

Cromwell echoed Congressman Keating’s concern that the Mashpee Wampanoag could be the first tribe in the modern era to lose its reservation if Congress didn’t act swiftly. 

Cited as a “technically legal” challenge to the Department of the Interior’s legal reasoning in establishing the reservation and a subsequent federal district court opinion remanded the initial 2015 reservation declaration back to the DOI for further review.

Further, Cromwell noted, his tribe is the only federally-recognized tribe in New England without a federal land settlement act, making the Mashpee Tribe particularly vulnerable to political and legal uncertainties.

“It is possible that we will not only lose our current reservation but also that we will never have any reservation,” Cromwell said. “HR 5244 is a simple bipartisan bill that confirms the status of the Mashpee reservation and confirms that the tribe is eligible for the Indian Reorganization Act. A reservation is essential to a tribe’s ability to engage in economic development and generate revenue to support vital government functions.”

Cromwell went on to note that litigation challenging the tribe’s reservation status was funded by an out-of-state casino developer who was not granted a license by the state of Massachusetts. 

Further plight ensued when the federal government opted not to defend the initial decision which now requires legislation to put an end to litigation and ensure the DOI does not move to take the tribe’s land out of trust.

This land case is under the watchful eye of Native American groups across the country, as its outcome has the potential to greatly alter future determinations of how land sovereignty is determined and or dis-established. 

In 2015 their 170 acres in Mashpee and an additional 150 acres in Taunton, Massachusetts were taken into trust on their behalf by the DOI, establishing these parcels as reservation land. 

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 qualify to have new property placed into federal trust, however, language within the IRA is being viewed differently. 

Chairman 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. 

After the DOI took the land into trust, Taunton property owners sued. United States District Judge William Young ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in 2016, which halted construction on the Taunton casino.

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

LaCounte said the DOI and BIA are still reviewing the court decision despite it coming two years ago.

The congressional hearing was held 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.

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.”

A group that includes 9th District Congressman William Keating, who represents the Cape and Islands, filed the bill earlier this year that re-affirms the tribe’s federal land status. “If this piece of legislation does not pass this would result in the tribe no longer being eligible for many federal grants and assistance programs, including assistance on the opioid epidemic that is scourged to our area,” Keating said.

Until the court challenge, the Mashpee tribe continued their casino project efforts made possible by their land in trust and a state law legalizing casinos in Massachusetts.

Without legislative action to re-affirm the Interior Departments September 2015 decision that established the Mashpee tribe’s initial reservation, the tribe has said the department could revoke their federal land designation.

“At this point, there is so much concern around no-decision. Currently… with the trust lands that we do have in place, it is very honorable, and just, that Congress could act on passing this bill to clear up any uncertainty, and ambiguity so that our people could continue to thrive, and prosper,” says Cromwell.
Such a “no decision” could provide shaky ground for all of Native Country. 

LaCounte was also asked about the status of the tribe’s land-in-trust review, LaCounte said he would get back to the committee. LaCounte was also asked whether the DOI was considering revoking the tribe’s reservation status, to which he responded: “I have heard of no plans to do this.”

Each of the various Congressional subcommittee members, including subcommittee Chairman Doug LaMalfa, R-California, spoke favorably of the bill.
“I look forward to moving the bill as expeditiously as possible,” added U.S. Rep Ruben Gallego, D-Arizona.

U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, said the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act is “a good piece of legislation.”

The legislation would supersede any action by the DOI.