Mashpee Tribe: Decision Imminent on Land In Trust Dispute

MASHPEE – A decision from the U.S. Department of the Interior on the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s land in trust dispute is expected within weeks.

A statement from the tribe on Monday said their leaders were hopeful a formal decision will be announced by September 21.

A lawsuit challenging the department’s legal reasoning in establishing the reservation prompted a federal district court judge to remand the case back to the Interior Department.

That put the Mashpee tribe’s land in trust located in Taunton and Mashpee in doubt. It also halted all work on a planned casino resort in Taunton.

The Department of the Interior needs to determine if the tribe qualified to have land held in trust under a different legal category.

In September 2015, the federal government took 321 acres of tribal land in Mashpee and Taunton to be held in trust by the federal government as an initial reservation.

According to their statement, tribal attorneys have been notified by Interior Department officials that the review is near completion.

They have to determine whether the tribe submitted sufficient evidence to establish proof of being under federal jurisdiction prior to the 1934 as defined by the Indian Regulatory Act.

“We remain hopeful the Department of Interior will do the right thing and reaffirm our trust lands. We submitted mounds of evidence that show we were indeed under federal jurisdiction before 1934,” said Tribal Chairman Cedric Cromwell in a statement.

“Unless back-room politics comes into play, an objective analysis of the evidence should result in a positive finding.”

Cromwell acknowledged there has been talk of the possibility the Interior Department would issue a decision not favorable to the tribe.

But he also said he was heartened by the Acting Bureau of Indian Affairs Secretary recent testimony before a Congressional subcommittee that disestablishing a reservation would set a bad precedent, harkening back to the termination era of the 1950s when the federal government sought to take sovereign land away from tribal nations.

Separate legislation on Capitol Hill, the Mashpee Reservation Reaffirmation Act, would permanently protect the Tribe’s reservation and end the legal challenge to the Interior Department’s authority to hold land in trust on behalf of the Mashpee Wampanoag.

“We will exhaust every means at our disposal to protect our ancestral homeland. Thankfully, we have the full support of the entire Massachusetts Congressional delegation and broader bipartisan support to ensure that my people don’t suffer another injustice at the hands of those who seek to revise history and undermine tribal sovereignty,” Cromwell said.

Earlier this summer, Cromwell met with legislators in Washington D.C. to talk about the legislation.

“Without Congressional action confirming that the IRA applies to Mashpee, it is possible not only that we will lose our current reservation, but also that we will never have any reservation,” said Cromwell at the time.

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.

The tribe said losing its reservation would cause them to close its school, abandon a tribal housing project, forfeit federal environmental grants, and divert funding designated for critical social services. It would also end their efforts to build the casino.

Until the court challenge, the Mashpee tribe was moving forward with a casino project that was made possible by their land into trust designation and a state law that legalized casinos in Massachusetts.

By MATT PITTA, News Director

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