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New Mashpee Wampanoag leader: ‘We own the future’

LAS VEGAS – Cedric Cromwell, the newly elected chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, is full of energy and optimism.

After almost two years of scandal and turmoil in which the tribe’s former chairman pleaded guilty to fraud, embezzlement and other federal charges, tribal members voted overwhelmingly Feb. 8 to renew their council with four new members and Cromwell at its head.

Cromwell, who promised during his campaign to bring back integrity, trust and transparency to the tribe, won by 356 votes – a landslide 147 more votes than his nearest competitor.

“With this new administration we’re about unity. We also want people to understand we don’t own the past. The past is the past. What we own is the future, but in order to own the future, we do have to talk about what has happened,” Cromwell said.

The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, whose ancestors met the first wave of English settlers/colonists on the shores of Cape Cod in 1620, received federal acknowledgment in the spring of 2007, more than three decades after filing its petition for federal status. A few months later, then Chairman Glenn Marshall was voted out of office after admitting he has a rape conviction and he had lied about his military service.

Worse news followed: Law enforcement agents revealed Marshall was under federal investigation. The ongoing investigation culminated Feb. 9 – a day after elections swept Cromwell and the new council members into office – when he pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to making illegal campaign contributions to members of Congress and embezzling tribal funds, filing false tax returns and fraudulently receiving Social Security disability. Around $4 million of investment funds were involved. Marshall is scheduled to be sentenced in May.

The tribe still has to meet and talk about what, if anything, it wants to do through its own judicial system, Cromwell said.

“While others have not been charged, the tribe is looking at morals and ethics, and anybody that has been tied to Glenn Marshall in terms of fraud and embezzlement or mismanagement of funds or acting in a way that supported those activities; we want to distance ourselves from that. That means from a business and internal perspective. But we haven’t shunned anybody yet or taken away their rights or anything like that – that’s a tribal decision.”

Tribal members righted a wrong early this winter when they welcomed back tribal elder Amelia Bingham, her son Steven, and two others who had been shunned in 2006 under Marshall’s influence for trying to blow the whistle on his financial wrongdoings.

While the tribe struggles to overcome the divisions created under Marshall’s leadership and find closure to his era, the new leaders have an ambitious agenda and a new operating philosophy: P.U.R.L.

“Pride, unity, respect and love – that’s our theme and our energy potential and our spiritual medicine. It came from Earl Soaring Eagle, our medicine man, out of his heart and spiritual wisdom based on the pain of the people,” Cromwell said.

“Not everyone shares the same sense of pride and unity; we’ve been split. The respect needs to happen based on the love that creates sharing and nurturing – not greed. We look to promote those in everything we do. And we want our neighbors and the state to know the Mashpee Wampanoags are good people. We’re smart people and we’re strong people. We have a government in place that is all about taking care of its people’s needs. We’re looking at a

beautiful, bright future based on creating jobs and education – that’s the stimulus package, because it opens up the mind to all kinds of possibilities and ideas that go beyond the normal boundaries we’ve been confined to.”

He said the tribe plans to secure federal education funding to provide tutors, distance learning, advocacy, support and Indian teachers for its students who are currently enrolled in local public schools. Ultimately, the tribe would like to open its own charter school.

“We need to lift our people out of the 50 percent failure rate in the schools. The system hasn’t been successful in helping our people.”

The European invasion almost destroyed the tribe and its culture.

“We had a great civilization. We had a government; we had leaders and trade and artisans. We had an economy and a gross domestic product. We had a fisheries industry, fur trade and our artisans’ productions. When you think about economies, wampum was the first currency of the country and it came from us eastern peoples, the People of the First Light,” Cromwell said, adding that federal acknowledgment provides the first real opportunity for restoration.

The tribe is developing plans for tourism. With its coastal land and rich history, the tribe is well positioned to pull in some of the six million-plus people who visit Cape Cod each summer. Other possibilities for economic development include construction, a fishery and health care. Tribal members will be supported in pursuing educational opportunities. There are 1,600 enrolled members and 800 pending applications.

Attending the Reservation Economic Summit for the first time yielded a wealth of information and ideas from other tribal leaders and presenters.

“We don’t have 8(a) contracts, for example. We want that,” Cromwell said.

The tribe is moving forward with plans to construct a $1 billion destination casino in Middleborough, Mass. on approximately 540 acres of land. The interior has been asked to take that land and approximately 150 acres in Mashpee into trust as an initial reservation.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s shocking ruling last month that the interior cannot take land into trust for tribes acknowledged after 1934 is a concern, Cromwell said.

“There’s been a great assault on sovereignty with this case. It’s unheard of for the U.S. to recognize an entity as a Native American tribe and not allow it to bring land into trust. So what they’re basically saying is you’re a sovereign government but you have no land and no ability to provide services for your people. You’re just a Native people and that’s it, even granted this land was taken from you illegally over time.”

The BIA has told the tribe to continue with its land into trust application, and the interior, tribes and tribal organizations are expected to seek a congressional remedy to the Supreme Court ruling.

While the mainstream media has focused on the tribe’s casino plans, Cromwell said the administration sees the casino as the engine that will secure the tribe’s economic future by providing funds to diversify its economy and build its nation.