House Passes Legislation to Reaffirm Wampanoag Land In Trust

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Legislation that would reaffirm the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s federal land in trust was approved by the House Wednesday.

The bill, which was reintroduced by Congressman Bill Keating, was approved 275-146 in a crucial step toward building a $1 billion resort casino in Taunton.

Last year, the Department of Interior reversed a previous decision to hold 321 acres of land in Mashpee and Taunton in trust following a federal lawsuit that challenged the process.

The Interior Department ruling said the tribe didn’t qualify to place the land in trust because it wasn’t under federal jurisdiction when the Indian Reorganization Act passed in 1934.

Since then, the tribe has been trying to secure federal legislation that would end all challenges to their land in trust.

The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe had already broken ground on the Taunton casino when the federal lawsuit shut it down.

Speaking on the House floor, Keating said the Wampanoag Tribe has resided in Southern New England for more than 12,000 years.

“To not have their land federally recognized simply is a disgrace,” Keating said. “We’ve seen them in our history books, in historic paintings, and iconic murals. They are the tribe that welcomed the Pilgrims for the first Thanksgiving.”

Keating said he has worked for years with the tribe as they have used federal recognition to provide adequate housing, jobs, job training, and essential services, including native language learning and early childhood education.

The tribe has also been hit hard by the opioid epidemic.

“The incidence of overdose for the Wampanoag Tribe is 400 times, I’ll repeat that – 400 times – more [than the general public,]” Keating said.

Keating said the tribe is also suffering like many others in the nation due to the uncertainty of its status.

“This is the tribe, I think, that best shows the inequities that are involved in these types of recognition,” Keating said.

The United States has not disestablished an Indian reservation for more than half a century.

“Now the tribe’s reservation is hanging by a thread and they have been left to defend their land on their own,” Keating said. “This is an existential threat.”

Keating said it will be nearly impossible for the Wampanoag to engage in any kind of true self government without support from Congress.

“No economic development. No tribal headquarters. No elder housing. No pre-K programs,” Keating said. “It means being treated as a second-class tribe with no future.”

The land in trust dispute reached the national political stage last week after President Donald Trump criticized the bill on Twitter.

Trump called the legislation a “special-interest casino bill” backed by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic presidential candidate.

He called the legislation unfair and said it “doesn’t treat Native Americans equally!” Trump urged Republicans to oppose the bill.

Keating contends that Trump opposes the bill because of “his well-documented alliance” with a lobbyist for two Rhode Island casinos that would compete with the First Light Resort and Casino planned by the Mashpee Wampanoag.

Trump supporter and chairman of the American Conservative Union, Matt Schlapp, has publicly criticized the legislation and linked it to Warren, who is a frequent critic of the president.

Warren co-sponsored a Senate version of the bill during the last Congress but has not committed on the newest legislative effort.

Schlapp represents Twin River Management Group, a private company that owns two casinos in Rhode Island. Federal records show that Twin River has paid Schlapp’s firm, Cove Strategies, $30,000 for its work in 2019.

Schlapp is also married to White House strategic communications director Mercedes Schlapp.

“Throughout this process we have seen gross mischaracterization and outright lying for personal and financial gain,” Keating said.

Keating said the legislation is not about gaming or picking winners and losers.

“It’s simply about a tribe’s rightful place in its native land. That’s all,” he said.

The legislation is being strongly opposed by Rhode Island’s congressional delegation.

They saw allowing the tribe to build a casino in Taunton will severely impact the finances of the two casinos already operating in that state.

Only two House Democrats opposed the bill – both of whom are from Rhode Island.

They said the measure amounted to “reservation shopping” by allowing the tribe to build a casino nearly 50 miles from its ancestral home on Cape Cod.

Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., said the approval of the bill could “open the flood gates” to other tribes across the country to hire lobbyists to push for off-reservation casinos.

Tribal Chairman Cedric Cromwell said the bill was an honorable legislative effort to correct the wrongs that have been perpetrated against the Wampanoag Tribe over the years, and would ensure that its people would have a chance to be self-sufficient.

“Out Tribe has suffered so much in the past from the United States’ failure to protect our land,” Cromwell said. “the House of Representatives acted to change that history, and to help us take one step closer towards a better and more secure future for the Mashpee people.”

The passage of the bill also received praise by the Town of Mashpee and the City of Taunton.

“The town believes that this legislation is critical to maintaining the cultural and economic viability of the tribe, and, further, that it will prevent the tribe’s current reservation from being taken out of trust, which would create a host of uncertainties that could undermine the interests of both the town and tribe and cause jurisdictional confusion and hardship for both our governments,” said Mashpee Town Manager Rodney Collins.

The bill will now head to the Senate.


Material from the Associated Press was used in this article.

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