The federal Bureau of Indian Affairs told the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe on Friday that the tribe's reservation will be "disestablished" and its land taken out of trust, per an order from Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, tribe Chairman Cedric Cromwell announced in a post on the tribe's website.
The Mashpee Wampanoag and their ancestors have lived on and around Cape Cod for thousands of years. They are one of two federally recognized tribes of Wampanoag people in Massachusetts. But their status was not formally recognized by the US government until 2007. As Boston.com explains:
The federal government hasn't removed a tribe's land trust status against its will since the mid-20th century's so-called Termination Era.
The move Friday came after a federal appeals court ruled against the tribe last month, upholding a lower court's ruling that the Mashpee Wampanoag didn't qualify to have their land taken into trust because the tribe wasn't federally recognized in 1934, when the Indian Reorganization Act was passed, creating a process to restore sovereign land rights.
The "legal" argument here is largely based on the (injust) ability for the descendents of colonial settlers to decide who does or does not qualify as Native American based on their genetic makeup and/or appearance, rather than cultural connection or involvement. Essentially, the claim is that, since this tribe was not recognized (because of assumptions of default whiteness) at the time when all of the other Native American landtrusts were established under US law, it is illegitimate. This is compounded by the fact that the Mashpee Wampanoag council were not granted their land by a government that had stolen it from them decades prior; but rather, they re-obtained their land on the Massachusetts South Shore by having to sue towns and purchase property that straddles the towns of Taunton and Mashpee.
Or, as the Associated Press reported:
The case was a largely semantic debate centered on whether the tribe could be considered "Indian" under the 1934 federal law, which created the process for taking lands into trust for tribes, among other things.
Twin River, the operator of the two Rhode Island casinos, also hired Matthew Schlapp, a conservative activist and vocal Trump supporter, to lobby for the company on the issue of the Mashpee Wampanoag reservation, as The Washington Post reported after Trump spoke out against the bill. Schlapp's wife, Mercedes Schlapp, was Trump's strategic communications director at the time. However, Schlapp said his wife played "no role" in his advocacy.
In other words, a nearby casino owner has been trying to exploit federal land trust and BIA regulations to eliminate their competition.
Speaking of Trump, remember this tweet? From a guy who, as Jeremy Scahill from The Intercept pointed out, has famously relied on racist rhetoric around Native Americans in order to defend his own casino profits.
Republicans shouldn't vote for H.R. 312, a special interest casino Bill, backed by Elizabeth (Pocahontas) Warren. It is unfair and doesn't treat Native Americans equally!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 8, 2019
While the actions of the casino moguls who have pushed this federal decision may have been inspired by racism and greed, there is unfortunately a legal basis for it (as long as we live on land where the law of the land-stealing US government continues to take priority over indigenous policies). According to the National Indian Gaming Commission:
25 U.S.C. § 2719, contains a general prohibition against gaming on lands acquired into trust after October 17, 1988 (the date the IGRA was enacted into law). Tribes may game on such after-acquired trust land if the land meets one of the exceptions laid out in § 2719. Indian lands opinions are issued by either the Commission or the Department of the Interior, Division of Indian Affairs, Office of the Solicitor in accordance with their Memorandum of Agreement. Below are the Indian lands advisory opinions issued by the NIGC and the Department of the Interior on whether a tribe may game on certain lands.
Whatever the future holds — and whatever legal standing there may or may not be to retroactively re-justify colonialist actions — I think that Mashpee Wampanoag Chairman Cedric Cromwell summed the situation up quite well in a statement:
Today's action was cruel and it was unnecessary.
[W]e 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. 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.
Appeals Court Denies Mashpee Wampanoag Request For Casino Land [Philip Marcelo / The Associated Press]
Message from the Chairman: We Will Take Action to Prevent the Loss of Our Land [Chairman Cedric Cromwell / Mashpee Wampanoag Council]
Why the Trump administration is moving to 'disestablish' a Massachusetts tribe's reservation [Nik DeCosta-Klipa / Boston.com]
"Cruel:" Trump Admin. Moves to Take Land of Mashpee Tribe—Whose Casino Plans Irked President's "Special Interest Friends"—Out of Trust [Andrea Germanos / Common Dreams]
Image: Thomas Kelly / Wikimedia Commons (CC 4.0)