House OKs bill protecting Mashpee Wampanoag's land

The Associated Press

Passage of the bill moves the tribe one step closer to ensuring its homeland isn't taken away

The U.S. House of Representatives has approved legislation that would prevent the Trump administration from rescinding a tribe's contested reservation in Massachusetts.

The amendment, included in a broader spending package passed by the Democratic-controlled chamber Friday, bars the Interior Department from revoking its 2015 decision to place some 300 acres of land into trust for the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe.

The legislation also would prevent the agency from reversing a corresponding declaration of the lands as the tribe's sovereign reservation, where it could legally build a casino under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

"In recent months, the Trump administration has used the COVID-19 pandemic as cover to try to steal the Tribe's land and define their people out of existence," U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy III, a Massachusetts Democrat who sponsored the bill, said in a written statement. "This amendment will put an immediate stop to those dangerous efforts."

Cedric Cromwell, the tribe's chairman, said House passage of the bill, with votes of 224-189, moves the tribe one step closer to ensuring its homeland isn't taken away. A similar proposal passed the House in 2019 but has stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate.

"The support we've received – locally, by our lawmakers in DC and across Turtle Island – has been tremendous. The threat of disestablishment was real, but the action taken today will help to ensure our ancestral homeland is forever protected," Cromwell said in a statement. 

(Previous story: Mashpee Wampanoag ruling a 'win for all of Indian Country')

U.S. Rep. William Keating, a Massachusetts Democrat who also sponsored the measure, said it will limit the administration's "constant efforts to undermine the Tribe's rights." He said the issue is about "people, their rights, their health, their education, and their livelihoods."

In March, the Trump administration moved to undo the 2015 decision, declaring that then-President Barack Obama's administration had no authority to put land into trust for the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe since it only became federally recognized relatively recently.

But the Cape Cod-based tribe, the tribe that encountered the pilgrims four centuries ago this year, challenged the decision. A federal judge in Washington, D.C., last month ordered the Interior Department to halt the revocation process, re-review the matter and issue new findings.

The tribe has more than 300 acres in the town of Mashpee and in Taunton near the Rhode Island state line.

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Indian Country Today contributed to this report. 

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