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On Friday, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe in Massachusetts learned that it was losing its reservation by order of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

In a letter posted on the tribe’s website dated March 27, Chairman Cedric Cromwell said the Bureau of Indian Affairs informed him that the Secretary of the Interior “has ordered that our reservation be disestablished and that our land be taken out of trust.”

“Today’s action was cruel and unnecessary,” Cromwell said. “The Secretary is under no court order to take our land out of trust. He is fully aware that litigation to uphold our status as a tribe eligible for the benefits of the Indian Reorganization Act is ongoing.”

The Boston Globe confirmed the Interior’s decision with a government spokesman.

Rep. Bill Keating, D-Mass., said on Twitter that the decision was “one of the most cruel and nonsensical acts I have seen since coming to Congress. The Secretary should be ashamed.”

“In a time of national health and economic emergency, the Secretary of the interior should be out to help all Native American tribes,” he added.

The Mashpee Wampanoag have been in Massachusetts and Rhode Island for thousands of years. It has 2,600 tribal citizens. The tribe was re-acknowledged and federally recognized in 2007. Eight years later, the Obama Administration declared 150 acres of land in Mashpee and 170 acres of land in Taunton as the tribe’s reservation.

A bill sponsored by Keating was introduced in 2019 called H.R. 312 - Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act was passed in the House. The Senate has yet to take action.

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In his letter, Cromwell said the tribe will take action to prevent the loss of trust status and that he will provide updates in the coming days.

“... we the People of the First Light have lived here since before there was a Secretary of the Interior, since before there was a State of Massachusetts, since before the pilgrims arrived 400 years ago,” he said. “We have survived, we will continue to survive. These are our lands, these are the lands of our ancestors and these will be the lands of our grandchildren. This Administration has come and it will go. But we will be here, always. And we will not rest until we are treated equally with other federally recognized tribes and the status of our reservation is confirmed.”

The Interior released the following statement:

“The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe remains a federally recognized Tribe. In Fall 2015, Interior issued a decision approving a trust acquisition for the Tribe. Subsequently, both a federal district court and a federal circuit court panel comprised of former Supreme Court Justice David Souter, former Chief Judge Sandra Lynch, and Senior Judge Kermit Lipez, found there to be no statutory authority for this decision. The Tribe did not petition for a panel rehearing or a rehearing en banc. On March 19, the court of appeals issued its mandate, which requires Interior to rescind its earlier decision. This decision does not affect the federal recognition status of the Tribe, only Interior’s statutory authority to accept the land in trust. Rescission of the decision will return ownership of the property to the Tribe.”

A phone call and an email to the tribe on Saturday by an Indian Country Today reporter was not immediately returned.

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Dalton Walker, Red Lake Anishinaabe, is a national correspondent at Indian Country Today. Follow him on Twitter - @daltonwalker

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