Federal Judge: Wampanoag Land Into Trust Designation Flawed

PHOTO COURTESY: Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe

PHOTO COURTESY: Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe

MASHPEE — A federal ruling could put a roadblock in front of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s plan to build a casino resort in Taunton.

US District Judge William G. Young ruled Thursday in favor of homeowners seeking to block the tribe from building the $1 billion complex.

Young ruled the U.S. Interior Department “lacked the authority” to designate the land as a Native American reservation.

The department’s 2015 decision to place over 300 acres in trust for the benefit of the tribe paved the way for the First Light casino project.

The casino, hotel and entertainment complex broke ground in April, months after a group of local residents filed suit seeking to block it.

Taunton Mayor Thomas Hoye said local voters overwhelmingly approved the project and he hopes the secretary of the interior will appeal the ruling.

Tribal Chairman Cedric Cromwell said they were disappointed in the ruling.

“The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe has been a continuous Tribe descended from the indigenous people who have lived on this land for the past 12,000 years. Furthermore, our tribe was indeed under federal jurisdiction before 1934. We submitted evidence of that with our land-in-trust application,” he said in a statement.

Cromwell said the issue has now been remanded back to the U.S. Department of Interior and an appeal of the court decision is expected.

“Our people have been challenged throughout history and we are still here, living on the land of our ancestors. I have no doubt we will prevail,” he said.

The process to designate the land into trust had been underway for several years before last September’s approval and was one of the last hurdles the Wampanoag tribe faced before moving ahead with the casino.

Federally recognized Native American tribes are allowed to build casinos on native land, or land that has been taken into federal trust.

A holdup for the Mashpee tribe had been a previous Supreme Court decision that put into limbo whether land could be taken into trust for tribes recognized after 1934, when the Indian Reorganization Act was ratified.

While the Wampanoags only won their federal recognition in 2007, other tribes who have proven they were under federal jurisdiction before 1934 have still been able to get land into trust.

The Mashpee tribe had always argued they had been under federal jurisdiction long before 1934.

The 2011 law that legalized casino gambling in Massachusetts provided for a casino in eastern and western Massachusetts, a slots-only casino, and a casino set-aside for a federally recognized Native American tribe.

In announcing the land into trust approval last year, U.S. Department of the Interior Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn said the tribe’s origins in southeastern Massachusetts predated the arrival of Europeans on the continent.

“At the time of initial European contact, the tribe’s ancestors occupied all of modern-day Bristol, Barnstable, and Plymouth Counties,” Washburn said in his ruling.

Washburn said that the tribe’s descendants were dispersed and lost much of their land in these areas to English settlers.

Federal officials said in 2015 that in reaching their decision, they conducted a thorough review of the tribe’s history and application, as well as the administrative record and comments submitted by numerous interested parties.

By MATT PITTA, CapeCod.com News Director

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report

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