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Mashpee Wampanoags officially recognized

MASHPEE, Mass. - The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe's federal acknowledgement became official May 24, three months after the BIA issued its positive final determination: and no one challenged it.

Tribal members met for a daylong celebration at the tribal headquarters in Mashpee, where tribal council chairman Glenn Marshall issued a statement for the occasion.

''Three hundred and eighty-six years ago, the Mayflower landed at Plymouth and was met by representatives of a sovereign nation. The complexities of that relationship, the friendship, the first Thanksgiving, the betrayal, the battles, the efforts at resettlement and the constant struggle are well documented. Today has reaffirmed the faith of that first meeting. But in another respect, we are today who we were then - the keepers of an important American story, one that was in danger of dying out, but has been given a new birth,'' Marshall said.

The tribe's new life includes eligibility for federal funding for health, education, housing and other programs, and the right to pursue a gaming compact with the state.

The tribe has been actively preparing to pursue gaming and in the past months announced plans to develop a resort destination modeled after the hugely successful Mashantucket Pequots' Foxwoods Resort and Casino and Mohegan Sun facilities in Connecticut.

The tribe envisions a 150,000-square-foot casino with 4,000 slot machines, 125 gaming tables, and a 1,500-room, five-star hotel, with restaurants, entertainment, shopping, convention space and golf courses.

Agreements are in place to purchase around 350 acres of land in Middleborough, about 30 miles southeast of Boston - a location that could capture much of the gaming traffic that now heads out of Boston to Connecticut, but the tribe is also considering other locations.

On the same day the tribe received news of its official acknowledgement, Massachusetts Treasurer Timothy Cahill proposed that the state beat the tribe into the casino business by soliciting bids from commercial casino developers. The casinos would be privately owned and operated, and regulated by the state.

Senate President Therese Murray, a Democrat, said the state should consider all possibilities.

''We must keep an open mind in examining every potential new revenue source that won't end up on the backs of taxpayers. Gaming is already well established in the Commonwealth and the Wampanoags are poised to ratchet up the debate with their plans for economic development. We need to start thinking about the best ways to position the state's interests in an industry that is on the brink of expanding within our borders,'' Murray said.

Mashpee spokesman Scott Ferson said the tribe also welcomed Cahill's proposal.

''We're encouraged by the state treasurer's comments. He confirmed that the real growth in revenue is not going to come from the lottery and that, in fact, a destination resort casino, which he would recommend, is the way to increase revenues for the state,'' Ferson said.

Cahill thinks the best deal for the state would be to have something to compete with Indian gaming, Ferson added.

''He doesn't want the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act to drive the process; he wants to drive the process. That's hard for us to fault. That's probably what he should be doing as an advocate for the state,'' Ferson said.

The tribe is already preparing to negotiate a Class III gaming compact with the state, which could include a percentage of the gaming profits to the state.

In Connecticut, the state receives 25 percent of slot revenues - more than $450 million annually from the two tribes - in exchange for the exclusive right to operate the casinos.

But the Cahill proposal is also wining one for the tribe.

''If the state decided to just do a commercial bid that did not include the Mashpee, obviously, the tribe would get to have a casino by right without having to share revenue with the state - and that would be fine as well,'' Ferson said.

Under IGRA, the tribe is entitled to offer the same gaming that is available in the state. If a commercial casino was established, the tribe would be less inclined to offer the state any substantial cut of the profits.

''So, we're approaching the potential negotiations with the governor the same way. We've had very good discussions with the governor and his staff and we expect that under either scenario, whether there is or isn't a push for a commercial license, that governor would negotiate in good faith,'' Ferson said.