The federal government debated for more than three decades whether to acknowledge an American Indian tribe that had lived in what is now southeastern Massachusetts for 12,000 years, that had ensured the survival of the first European colonists in the area and whose claim to lands was recognized as legitimate by the Plimoth Bay Colony 400 years ago.
The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe did finally receive federal recognition in 2007. Another eight years went by before the Department of the Interior announced its decision to take 320 acres of land into trust for the tribe for housing and economic development. The tribe broke ground on its proposed billion-dollar First Light Resort and Casino project in Taunton, Massachusetts, in April.
Days later attorneys for a group of plaintiffs, funded by a developer with plans to build a casino in a nearby town, were in court trying to persuade Federal District Court Judge William Young to stop the tribe’s project. They succeeded. In August Judge Young found that the Bureau of Indian Affairs (the defendant in the case) did not have the authority to take the land into trust under the category 2 definition (descendants of a recognized Indian tribe) of “Indian” that it had used.
Young expanded on his ruling in October, when he said the department would be within its rights to go back and look at whether it could take the land into trust for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe under the category 1 (under federal jurisdiction in 1934) definition of “Indian.” A month earlier, the judge had granted the tribe’s request to intervene in the lawsuit, so it can participate directly as the case goes forward.
Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Chairman Cedric Cromwell sat down with ICTMN last week to talk about the lawsuit, its historical context, and what the future may hold.
What is the status of the court case at this point?
Land into trust is so important for us – having our sovereign land for self-determination and for building infrastructure for our people. In 1988 the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act was passed, but prior to that, for thousands of years, we had land.
Gaming’s a by-product of being able to have federal trust lands, but what’s more important is having land for our tribe, for housing, for education, and all the many needed social services and important developments of growth and for the advancement of our people.
As we look at the litigation, it says the federal government didn’t have the authority to take the land into trust. But when you look at the court case, they did not look at the Record of Decision. Clearly, it’s under category 2 of the Indian Reorganization Act. The ROD doesn’t talk about Carcieri, under federal jurisdiction [which was the basis for the lawsuit].
Nevertheless, the decision has been remanded back to the United States. We’re going to resubmit under category 1. We’re in the process of doing that now. It’s a dual track situation, the process with respect to category 2 and also the land-into-trust decision being remanded back to the department for resubmission under category 1. I will point out that the land is still in trust. It has not been taken out of trust.
What do you anticipate will be the effects in Indian country of a Trump presidency?
The president-elect talks about making America great again. I think we are the greatest country, the United States of America, even though there have been historical challenges, and we as Native Americans know those all too well.
His statements around economic development — I’ve been really keen on those. For example, the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act was put in place for tribes to become self-determined, self-sufficient, so you could get off the public rolls of social support. That is a way to help with the deficit, by us creating our own economy, by being able to provide for our own people. And it’s not just jobs for the tribe, it’s jobs for our friends, neighbors and community members in southeastern Massachusetts and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
That ties into President-elect Trump’s theory about economic development, creating jobs, creating economies, expanding our gross domestic product. Indian country as sovereign nations can create economy, job development, and self-sufficiency through self-determination. That then supports the national economy.
What’s really paramount for me is Indian policy. Trump is talking about economies, and we can do that. So he’s got to hear from us. I’m willing to sit with him and speak about that, to gain his support, to get him to understand our vision because who could better represent us than ourselves?
He has, I’ve heard, made negative statements about tribes, with which I disagree 100 percent, but I also know this—we have work to do. So I’m looking forward to meeting with him and explaining who we are and what we’re doing and why we’re doing it and why we need support to continue to move forward.
Who is on the Supreme Court perhaps matters more in Indian country than anyplace else. Could you comment on the future of the court?
I know that President-elect Trump’s got a conservative in mind for the Supreme Court. And that conservative knows nothing about federal Indian law. So, unfortunately, when these cases get up to the Supreme Court we have folks that haven’t studied us; if they know anything about us it’s because they saw a movie with us riding around on horses with long hair, back in the 1800s. We’re so much more than that.
So the Supreme Court is going to be a challenge for all of Indian country. We hope that Trump will be able to ensure that the Supreme Court gets the appropriate education on Indian law and the administrative matters that pertain to Indian country, so we can get more of a fair shake. Right now we’re not.
You have said you see what is happening here in Mashpee as indicative of what’s happening all over Indian country, for example, in North Dakota. Could you talk about that?
Standing Rock is important because it’s iconic. The water protectors in North Dakota are saying we’re not just protecting water for us but we’re protecting it for Mother Earth and all of mankind. It’s about stewardship, it’s about our culture, it’s about our spirituality, it’s about life on Mother Earth, for all of mankind.
We had our own Standing Rock situation happen from the first encounters where we helped the first settlers survive their first harsh winters and then we were given the smallpox blankets.
Here we are today, trying to get aboriginal trust land, and a judge says, no you can’t. Years and years later, millions and millions of dollars later, the burden is back on us to continue to prove what is common sense.
It’s common sense what they’re doing with the Dakota Access Pipeline. When it leaks -- what are you going to do [when] it kills all the precious life within that water, the fish, the oxygen, the nutrients, things that we as human beings, not just Native people, survive off of?
So after a while we have to step back and say what is all this policy about? It’s not for us and it’s not by us. It’s for a certain group that has created these laws and rules and regulations. We as human beings need to take a step back and say, where are we going with this? There’s enough economy to make this world go round. The problem is that the ignorance and prejudices just mask what the economy, the greed-based economy, is doing.
I believe my job on the earth is to continue the story, continue the message but also break through. With our spirit coming down, with the energy of the Almighty Lord, our Creator right here coming down on us, we’ve got to move this thing forward. For all Indian people, and for people as a whole.