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Mashpee Wampanoag recount struggles to gain federal acknowledgement

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By David Weber -- Associated Press

MASHPEE, Mass. (AP) - Ellen Hendricks, 81, has lived her entire life here on ancestral grounds of her Mashpee Wampanoag Indian forbearers.

She watched relatives and friends struggle with inadequate education and poverty as their Cape Cod land was swallowed up and fenced off piece-by-piece by ''the newcomers,'' as she calls them.

The Mashpee Wampanoags, who shared the first Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims in 1621, once had 33,000 acres in what is now mostly Mashpee and Falmouth - land given to the tribe by the English crown when the Indians were forced to move south to the Cape.

By the end of the 20th century, the tribe had 160 acres left.

A greater indignity than the loss of land was the loss of identity, Hendricks said.

People would doubt she was Indian, believing instead she was Portuguese, black, Cape Verdean or some mixture. She recalled how her relatives felt when the same questions were raised during the Mashpee Wampanoags' unsuccessful lawsuit to reclaim their olds lands.

''They were humiliated to hear those lawyers say, 'How do you know you're Indian?''' she said. ''It's been hard. People didn't want to recognize you as Indian. If you were kind of brown,'' she said, pointing to her skin, ''then you were something else.''

A decision by the federal government, however, has changed the tribe's fortunes.

After 32 years of legal tug-of-war, the BIA on Feb. 15 officially recognized the Mashpee Wampanoags as a tribe - a decision that ultimately could lead to the first legalized casino gaming in Massachusetts.

The drawn-out petition process never would have been necessary were it not for an 1849 bookkeeping error that kept the Mashpee Wampanoags from being listed as a tribe when a federal government oversight of Indians was transferred from the War Department to the BIA, according to tribe members.

But now, the members no longer will have to prove themselves. And they are looking to a future with millions of dollars of potential - should state lawmakers allow for a casino to be built.

Still, long before tribal members began dreaming of a financial bonanza, they lived a simple life off the bounty of the land and sea.

Their land on the Cape remained unincorporated until 1870, when the Massachusetts Legislature said the need to build roads and spread electricity through the region required the residents to form the town of Mashpee. The town population remained predominantly Indian well into the 1960s. When the first white man was elected to the board of selectman in 1964, the town's fire and police departments still were comprised of Indians only, tribal council chairman Glenn Marshall said.

At the same time, demand for land on Cape Cod was rising quickly. Sharp-eyed real estate speculators and lawyers saw large property tracts on government lists because of nonpayment of taxes. The Indians' communal and fairly insular lifestyle left them ignorant of or unconcerned about paying tax bills when their relatives died.

''We summered by the water and wintered inland,'' Marshall said, describing the traditional lifestyle in which they took their cues from nature. ''When the dandelions came [in spring], we fished for herring. We had our strawberry festivals and harvest thanks. We hunted for mink, possum, deer, rabbit, partridge, quail, ducks and geese.''

Hendricks said she began to notice Indian life changing after World War II. White people began buying property the Indians had considered communal for generations.

''They would say we could no longer go to the beach. We didn't question it. We just took it for granted that we were not allowed,'' she said.

Because the Mashpee Indians are so small in number, with roughly 1,500 tribal members, most of them are related somewhere along the line. Their Indian culture, which dates back thousands of years, literally is their family history. Hendricks found it difficult to see her loved ones squeezed toward insignificance as Mashpee and the rest of Cape Cod increasingly took on the trappings of suburban America.

When the Indians lost their majority to the whites on the board of selectmen in the early 1970s, they decided to seek federal recognition for their tribe.

Shortly after beginning the federal recognition process in 1975, the Mashpee Indians filed a lawsuit in the state court seeking to reclaim much of their former lands, including privately owned property. After the Indians ultimately lost their lawsuit, a tribal elder said, ''Never again sue for the land. Get rich and buy it back,'' according to Marshall.

That's now what they plan to do, through casino gaming.

Marshall, 57, a former Metropolitan police officer and Marine Corps veteran who served three tours in Vietnam, said the decades-long recognition effort would have failed if Detroit-based casino developer Herb Strather had not underwritten their $8 million legal costs and given them another $5 million to begin procuring land.

''The deal is, if we get gaming, he gets a piece of the pie,'' Marshall said.

Former federal BIA Assistant Secretary Kevin Gover said the Mashpee Indians' formal recognition should have come a long time ago. He said their 30,000-page recognition petition became ensnared in a ''bureaucratic nightmare.''

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''As you look at the historical evidence, it's very clear they were organized as a tribe and understood by all around to be an Indian tribe,'' Gover said.

But there were long-standing issues of land ownership and friction.

Lee Gurney, a longtime town resident and member of the town historical commission, said the Indians' unsuccessful land lawsuit in state court, which stretched on for about six years, increased tensions between the Indians and non-Indians.

''It panicked everyone in town. Nobody could get a mortgage. Nobody could sell their house. A lot of the community felt pretty threatened,'' said Gurney, who is white. She said relations between the tribe and the non-Indians have improved since then, although she acknowledged a certain amount of bigotry against the tribe still remains.

Gurney said she has no doubt the Mashpee Indians suffered injustices over the years. She said she is glad to see them finally receive official recognition and does not begrudge them the chance to cash in with a casino.

''If that's a way for them to catch up, then good for them,'' she said.

Timeline of events in the history of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe

1620: Mashpee Wampanoag Indians meet the Pilgrims as they arrive in Plymouth. Tribe member Squanto helps them survive their first winter in North America.

1621: The Mashpee Wampanoag celebrate the first Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims and later serve as guides when the settlers explore the land.

1685: Plymouth Court deeds roughly 55 square miles of land on Cape Cod to the tribe. The court ruling states the English cannot purchase any of the land without the Indians' consent.

1752: The tribe sends a petition to the Massachusetts General Court seeking relief from encroachment on their land by non-Indians.

1763: The Massachusetts governor and Legislature agree to allow limited self-government by the Indians in Mashpee.

1770: Crispus Attucks, whose mother was a Mashpee Wampanoag, is killed by British soldiers in the Boston Massacre.

1790: President Washington signs the Trade and Non-Intercourse Act, which requires federal government approval before Indian land can be sold or transferred.

1822: The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe is listed as an Indian tribe by the U.S. War Department.

1849: Oversight of the all Indian tribes is transferred to the BIA. A bookkeeping error omits the Mashpee Wampanoag from the bureau's list. The error is not corrected, despite the Mashpee Wampanoags' 1822 classification as a tribe.

1870: The Massachusetts Legislature abolishes the Mashpee district on Cape Cod and incorporates Mashpee as a town.

1870 - early 1960s: Mashpee Wampanoags hold all elected offices in Mashpee and hold all slots on the police and fire departments. Tribe members continue to fish and hunt on the town's undeveloped lands.

1964: First white person is elected to the Mashpee board of selectmen.

Late 1960s: Large residential developments, beginning with New Seabury, start to alter the town's demographics and political structure. The Indians' free movement through the woodlands to the coastal waters is impeded.

1975: The Mashpee Wampanoag inform the BIA that they will seek federal recognition as a tribe.

1976 - 1982: The tribe fights unsuccessfully in state court to reclaim lands it once held. The case creates havoc among those trying to buy and sell property in the town because banks will not grant mortgages while ownership is in doubt.

1993: Mashpee Wampanoag Medicine Man John ''Slow Turtle'' Peters delivers opening prayer at President Clinton's inaugural breakfast.

2005: The Mashpee Wampanoag tribal council reaches a settlement with the U.S. Department of the Interior, putting its recognition petition on the ''active consideration'' list.

Feb. 15, 2007: The Mashpee Wampanoags are officially recognized as a tribe.

source: The Associated Press