Massachusetts Tribe Rejected by BIA

The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, whose ancestors met the Pilgrims when they landed at Plymouth, received a letter from the Department of the Interior Assistant Secretary Tara Sweeney (l.) saying the BIA could not find justification for putting their land in Taunton into trust. While there is still some legislation being proposed, the decision will negatively impact the tribe’s ability to build its First Light casino.

The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, which seeks to build the “First Light” casino, in Taunton, was turned down by the Department of the Interior in its bid to put the tribe’s land in Taunton and Martha’s Vineyard into trust.

In 2015, the Obama administration put the tribe’s 321 acres into trust, opening the door to development of the $1 billion casino, which would be financed by Genting of Malaysia. But in a lawsuit a year later, a federal judge rejected the BIA’s original justification for putting the land into trust, saying it violated the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Carcieri Vs. Salazar that tribes that weren’t “under federal jurisdiction” after 1934 can’t put land into trust. The tribe achieved federal recognition in 2007.

The federal judge, William Young said the department used faulty justification for putting the land into trust but said it could try to find a different legal justification, if possible.

The department has been trying to secure the land into trust using a different legal category for “Indian.” The department has also tried to argue that because the tribe was under the control of Massachusetts for the last 400 years that this was the equivalent of being under federal jurisdiction.

The department dropped its own appeal of Young’s decision in 2017.

In a letter to Tribal Chairman Cedric Cromwell, Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney said that the evidence presented provides no indication of federal authority to prove they were “under federal jurisdiction.”

While the state was apparently aware of the tribe, the federal government held no authority over it, according to Sweeney.

“Because the tribe was not ‘under federal jurisdiction’ in 1934, the tribe does not qualify under the IRA’s first definition of ‘Indian,’” said Sweeney. “Nor does it qualify under the second definition, as that definition has been interpreted by the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts.”

Because of the BIA ruling, the tribe is now depending on a bill that moving through Congress that would accomplish the same thing, but by Congressional fiat. Two weeks ago tribal Vice Chairman Jessie “Little Doe” Baird testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

The Interior Department has taken no position on the bill. Cromwell asked people to rally around the bill.

“I am asking people of good will and all those concerned with justice for the indigenous people of this land—the first Americans—to stand with us in calling on Congress to protect our reservation and ensure we are don’t become the first tribe since the dark days of the Termination Era to lose its land,” Cromwell said.

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