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Mashpee Wampanoags' quest ends with federal acknowledgement.

By Gale Courey Toensing -- TODAY STAFF

MASHPEE, Mass. - The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe was acknowledged as a federally recognized Indian tribe by the BIA on Feb. 15, more than 385 years after their ancestors met the first English settlers on the shores of Cape Cod.

Joyous exclamations were heard in the tribal council office and in a nearby heated tent as Interior Department Associate Deputy Secretary James Cason's voice came over a loudspeaker announcing the tribe had reached its goal after a 32-year quest for federal acknowledgement.

''There are so many things for me to be proud of as chief of the Mashpee Tribe, and today I can stand before you and say that pride is greater than ever,'' said Chief Vernon ''Silent Drum'' Lopez.

''We have fought for this throughout our history, and we have prepared and prayed for this day. So many Mashpee chiefs have called this land home, have built their lives here and helped embrace the same cultural and religious means we still practice. It is their presence I feel today, and it is that history we honor. This has not been an easy task, but we have never lost hope. When what you are fighting for is right, then justice will prevail,'' Lopez said.

The BIA's final determination reaffirmed its proposed positive finding in March 2006 that the tribe met all seven mandatory criteria.

The Mashpee first sought federal recognition in 1975, but the petition did not reach ''active status'' until October 2005, under a court-ordered schedule that required a final decision by March 31, 2007.

Of the federally acknowledged tribes, the Mashpee Wampanoags are only the 16th tribe to gain federal status through the BIA's process since it was implemented in 1978.

''Without recognition, our tribe would have dissolved into the landscape,'' said Tribal Council Chairman Glenn Marshall. ''Recognition as a sovereign nation has saved the tribe that met the Mayflower.''

The Mashpee are the state's second recognized tribe after the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head-Aquinnah on Martha's Vineyard.

Soon after the Mashpee's recognition was announced, the tribe received calls of congratulations from newly elected Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick; Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.; and Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass.

''The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe has been extremely patient, waiting over three decades for this moment, and I congratulate them on their federal recognition. I'm pleased that the tribe will now have access to a range of essential federal services including education, social services, housing and health benefits,'' Patrick said in a statement.

Federal recognition will also bring the approximately 1,500-member tribe land rights and the possibility of opening the first casino in Massachusetts. The tribe cannot move forward unless legislators legalize gaming, which is currently prohibited in the state. Last year, the Legislature rejected a bill that would have allowed slot machines at the state's horse and dog race tracks, but the multi-billion-dollar gaming industry is tempting to some legislators who see it as a way to fill a $1 billion hole in the state budget.

While the governor did not express outright support for a Mashpee casino, he said he has already spoken to tribal representatives and promised to remain ''committed to working closely with them on all matters of shared concern.''

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The tribe has always been up front about its desire to open a casino and destination-

type complex.

''We have always said we wanted to be a player at the table, and now we're at the table. We're a tribe that's been recognized with no amendments or restrictions. We're looking forward to working with the governor and if there's gaming available, we'll be there,'' Marshall said.

The tribe has agreed not to build a casino on its 200-acre land base on Cape Cod, where traffic already snarls during the summer rush of vacationers.

That means the tribe will have to find a sizeable piece of property elsewhere in the state and have Interior take the land into trust.

The Mashpee's official recognition will take effect after 90 days unless it is appealed.

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who has led the fight against tribal recognition and Indian tribal sovereignty in Connecticut and elsewhere around the country, said he would review the Mashpee recognition for its potential impact in Connecticut, according to a report in The [New London] Day newspaper.

The Mashpee recognition ''could well have highly serious and far-reaching ramifications for our state, so we'll have to review and consider what action may be appropriate,'' Blumenthal said.

It is unclear whether Blumenthal intends to challenge the Mashpee recognition at the Interior Board of Indian Appeals or if he would have standing to bring such an appeal, since the tribe lives outside of Connecticut.

''I would assume it would be considered. Anybody could question it, but does it have merit? What would he base it on? Whether or not they agree with him would be a different story,'' said BIA spokesman Gary Garrison.

Any appeal to the Interior board would have to be based on the seven mandatory criteria the tribe was required to meet, Garrison said.

The Mashpee Wampanoag in history

The Mashpee Wampanoags' history dates back more than 5,000 years, according to archaeologists, who have documented continuous habitation on Mashpee territory.

It was Mashpee Wampanoag Indians who met the first 102 colonists from England debarking from the Mayflower on Nov. 9 (Nov. 19 by today's calendar), 1620. It was this Northeastern tribe whose famous ancestors taught the newcomers how to survive in the ''wilderness'' of the ''New World'' and hosted the settlers at the first Thanksgiving in 1621 after the terrible winter of 1620 - '21.

And it was the Wampanoag Metacomet, who was also known as King Philip, who rallied is warriors in 1675 to defend their homeland in a courageous but doomed resistance known as King Philip's War against the superior-armed European colonist-settlers, who had broken established peace agreements and expanded their occupation and expropriation of the Wampanoag homelands.