Mashpee Wampanoag ruling a 'win for all of Indian Country'

In this May 29, 2014, photo, people stand in the lobby of the newly constructed Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe's Community Government Center in Mashpee, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia, File)

Kolby KickingWoman

Supporters cheer Massachusetts tribe's victory in lawsuit against U.S. Interior Department over its reservation status

Kolby KickingWoman

Indian Country Today

Support is pouring in for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe following a ruling in its favor in a lawsuit against the U.S. Interior Department.

On Friday evening, Judge Paul L. Friedman of the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., blocked the federal government from rescinding the Massachusetts tribe’s reservation status, ordering the department to reexamine a decision that took the tribe’s more than 300 acres out of trust.

Massachusetts’ two Democratic U.S. senators, Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, said in a joint statement that the ruling marks an important victory for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe. But they said the fight is not finished, and they will continue to hold the Trump administration accountable.

“The Mashpee Wampanoag have a right to their ancestral homeland,” the statement said. “We are glad that the Court acknowledged the importance of the arguments we made in the bicameral, bipartisan amicus brief we filed with our colleagues opposing the U.S. Department of the Interior's cruel actions.”

The amicus brief submitted to the court was led by Rep. Deb Haaland, Laguna and Jemez Pueblo, and signed by more than 20 members of Congress from both sides of the aisle.

Haaland, a New Mexico Democrat, said the relationship between tribes and the federal government must be upheld and that the Interior Department had blatantly abused its power.

“Tribal sovereignty and the government-to-government relationship must be respected, but the Department of Interior clearly used a public health emergency to illegally move land out of trust,” said Haaland in a statement.

FILE - In this June 6, 2018, file photo, Deb Haaland, a Democratic candidate for Congress for central New Mexico's open seat and a tribal member of the Laguna Pueblo, sits at her Albuquerque home. More than 100 Native Americans are seeking seats in Congress, governor's offices, state legislatures and other posts across the country in what political observers say has been a record number of candidates. Congressional races in New Mexico and Kansas could determine whether Congress has its first Native American representative. (AP Photo/Russell Contreras, File)
In this June 2018 photo, Deb Haaland, then-Democratic candidate for Congress, sits at her Albuquerque home. (AP Photo/Russell Contreras, File)

The Interior Department said in a brief statement Monday that it is examining Friedman's ruling. 

“The Department is reviewing the decision and our options to proceed, and remains committed to upholding our trust responsibilities to Indian Country,” the statement said.

The agency previously told The Associated Press that it was obligated by a recent federal court decision to remove a lands designation bestowed in 2015 under then-President Barack Obama.

Mashpee Wampanoag Chairman Cedric Cromwell told Indian Country Today on Friday it was a great day for Mashpee and that Friedman stood up for justice. 

Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Chairman Cedric Cromwell addressed Indian Country in a video posted to Facebook on Sunday. (Photo by Cedric Cromwell / Facebook)
Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Chairman Cedric Cromwell addressed Indian Country in a recent video posted to Facebook. (Photo by Cedric Cromwell / Facebook)

“Very happy justice reigned supreme but the battle is not over,” Cromwell said. “We’re praying the Trump administration will do the right thing and stand with Mashpee.”

(Previous story: Mashpee Wampanoag: US Court ‘stood up for justice’)

Also congratulating the Mashpee on its victory was the National Congress of American Indians. The organization's president, Fawn Sharp, Quinault, said the organization will continue to stand with Mashpee as the process plays out.

“We consider this a win for all of Indian Country,” Sharp said. “The Mashpee Wampanoag relationship with the United States is one of political equality, derived from their inherent sovereignty, powers, and authority that long predates the United States. No federal agency or civil servant has the authority to diminish or in any way undermine that unique political relationship and standing.”

Per Judge Friedman’s ruling, the case has been remanded to the Interior Department, where Interior Secretary David Bernhardt must follow a 2014 “M-Opinion” to determine whether the Mashpee were “under federal jurisdiction before 1934.”

Interior 1
(Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)

M-Opinions are opinions from the interior solicitor, the department’s head attorney, and are a source for the department’s interpretations of particular laws.

Robert Anderson, Bois Forte Band of Ojibwe, is a law professor at the University of Washington School of Law and said it seems the Interior Department and the current administration have put a lot of resources into this case, and are splitting hairs to prevent recent federally recognized tribes from receiving the same benefit as other tribes.

The Mashpee Wampanoag gained federal recognition in 2007. 

“It's another example of this administration sort of being, you know, going out of its way to chip away at Indian rights in a sort of a mean-spirited, nitpicky way,” Anderson said. “I think it's really a bad thing.”

As the Interior Department reexamines its decision, the 321 acres of Mashpee Wampanoag land has been placed back into trust, and Cromwell said the tribe will work so that it remains that way.

“We will continue to work with the Department of the Interior — and fight them if necessary — to ensure our land remains in trust,” Cromwell said.

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Kolby KickingWoman, Blackfeet/A'aniih is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today. He is from the great state of Montana and currently reports and lives in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter - @KDKW_406. Email - kkickingwoman@indiancountrytoday.com

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