Trail of Broken Promises: Mashpee Wampanoag Land Trust revoked by Department of the Interior

Wampanoag means “People of the First Light.” Having lived in Cape Cod for at least 10,000 years, they are one of the longest continuous cultures in the Americas.

In 2015, the Obama administration placed 321 acres of land in Taunton, Mass, into the trust of the Department of the Interior (DOI) for the development of a casino and water park to be managed and operated by the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe of Cape Cod. However, the attitude toward Indian country has cooled significantly since the Trump administration took office, and the White House has made no secret of its perspective on Native American affairs. On September 7, the DOI reevaluated its position on the Taunton project and concluded that the Mashpee Wampanoag, “does not satisfy the, ‘under Federal jurisdiction’ requirement of the definition of Indian.” So many insults, so many hypocrisies, all in one single statement.

The whole mess stems from the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 (IRA), which was passed with the objective (if not necessarily the results) of extending greater control of tribal assets to the tribes themselves. However, since the Mashpee Wampanoag were not officially recognized as a tribe by the Federal Government until 2007, they are not covered by the 84-year-old piece of legislation, and it’s this particular document concerning land rights that supersedes all others in play. No legislation, no land trust. No land trust, no casino. Ten millennia of history isn’t enough of a reason to assume stewardship, it would seem.

Not that this should come as a surprise. The president is famous for political positioning statements, and his grand overture in Indian country was the decision to proceed with the Keystone Pipeline through Standing Rock, Rosebud and many other reservations despite the health, cultural and environmental impacts. In this respect, the Wampanoag are just one tribe among many to feel the icy shoulder of the White House.

However, the timing of the challenge against the Taunton project was red hot. In February 2016, just weeks after Obama left office and Trump assumed his throne, the DOI received a suit filed by a group of Taunton property owners citing Carcieri v. Salazar (2009), a Supreme Court decision that the government could not take land into trust for tribes recognized after the IRA. Forget colonists with blunderbusses and tricornered hats, or mounted bluecoats with long knives; today it is the strangulation caused by red tape that drives the containment of America’s native people.

What does this mean for the Mashpee? A significant loss of potential income is for sure, but perhaps even more is the offense the DOI’s decision has caused to the community’s sense of self and identity. In August, I submitted a report for this publication covering the tribe’s powwow, and within it discussed a profound feeling of unity and common vision reverberating across the celebration. This was the first time in generations that the powwow had been held on tribal land, and almost all of the people I spoke to felt encouraged by the direction the tribe was taking. This callous declaration takes into consideration only westernized notions of governance and cultural grouping, and with its empire-first, humanity-later approach, fails to acknowledge the indigenous interests in the most post-Columbian manner possible.

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