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Kolby KickingWoman

Indian Country Today

The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe has cleared a major legal hurdle in its battle to maintain its reservation status.

A federal judge on Friday ordered the U.S. Interior Department to reexamine its previous decision taking the tribe’s more than 300 acres in Massachusetts out of trust.

“While we are pleased with the court's findings, our work is not done,” tribal Chairman Cedric Cromwell said in a statement. “The Department of Interior must now draft a positive decision for our land as instructed by Judge Friedman. We will continue to work with the Department of the Interior — and fight them if necessary — to ensure our land remains in trust.”

Cromwell told Indian Country Today that the decision marked a great day for Mashpee and that U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman in Washington, D.C., stood up for justice.

“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.”

Cromwell added that Friedman was very prescriptive in his instructions that the Trump administration must go back and correctly apply a 2014 “M-Opinion.”

In his ruling, Friedman called the Interior Department's actions “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, and contrary to law.”

The tribe was notified on March 27 that the department was taking its Massachusetts land out of trust.

A recent hearing in its lawsuit focused largely on whether the tribe was “under federal jurisdiction” before the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act.

An attorney for the Cape Cod-based tribe, Tami Azorsky, argued that the evidence put forward by the Mashpee Wampanoag showing it was under federal jurisdiction is the type of evidence that the Interior Department has used to award that distinction in the past. It includes federal reports, census records and proof of tribal members’ attendance to Bureau of Indian Affairs schools like Carlisle Indian School.

“When viewed in context and that together they are the types of evidence that in other cases the Secretary determined the tribe was ‘under federal jurisdiction,’ but in this instance dismissed each individually,” Azorsky said at the May hearing.

Azorsky added that the Interior Department has an obligation and responsibility to protect tribes.

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Sara Costello, representing the Interior Department, told the judge during the hearing that the administrative record from prior court cases was on the side of the department. She said the tribe failed to meet the requirements of being “under federal jurisdiction” before the 1934 law, which was aimed at decreasing federal control of Native American affairs and increasing self-governance.

The Mashpee Wampanoag gained federal recognition in 2007. Its land is in the Massachusetts towns of Mashpee and Taunton, near the Rhode Island state line. 

Lawyers representing the tribe have said the impacts of losing its reservation status would be devastating, ranging from the loss of access to crucial economic development, education, social services and health programs, to a reduced ability to battle the coronavirus. The tribe has broken ground on a $1 billion resort and casino.

U.S. Rep. Bill Keating, D-Massachusetts, whose district includes the tribe’s land, filed an amicus brief on behalf of the tribe.

“Today marks a victory for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe in their struggle to preserve their reservation lands from the arbitrary actions of the Trump administration,” he said. 

Cromwell said he is “tired” but is “still in the ring.” He noted that 2020 happens to be the 400th anniversary of the landing of the Mayflower on Plymouth Rock. The tribe traces its ancestry to those who greeted the pilgrims in 1621.

In a time of protests and a pandemic, the people and lands are speaking up, Cromwell said over the phone Friday evening. “Let freedom ring.”

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Kolby KickingWoman, Blackfeet/Gros Ventre 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 -

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.