Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe receives land victory


Last updated 8/6/2020 at 12:55pm

Wikimedia commons/Thomas Kelly

The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe won a victory in the House of Representatives over land that is in debate.

MASHPEE, Mass-On July 24, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 7608, a package of appropriations bills which also includes an amendment to protect the land of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe.

The language of the amendment prevents the Interior Department from taking any action that would dispose of the Tribe's land and reservation. It would also protect the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe from continuing litigation and recognize their tribal lands without interference from the federal government.

At issue is 321 acres of land that was put into trust during the Obama administration in September 2015.

Having land "held in trust" by the federal government gives a tribe special legal status and autonomy to decide how to tax, develop and manage a plot of land. The decision to take land into trust is typically made by the Department of the Interior, which had approved the trust status for the Mashpee land in 2015.

The Obama decision was reversed in September 2018, and in February 2020, the tribe suffered a legal defeat when the U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston upheld a lower court decision declaring the federal government had not been authorized to take the land into trust.

In March 2020, the chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Cedric Cromwell was told that the tribe's reservation would be disestablished by order of the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior.

Jean-Luc Pierite, head of the North American Indian Center of Boston, called the federal government's action an existential crisis for all tribes federally recognized after 1934. (The Cape Cod-based Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe gained federal recognition in 2007.) The department's move without a court order signals that reservations across the United States could be taken out of trust at the discretion of the secretary of the interior, Pierite said.

According to WBUR News, Conner Swanson, a spokesman for the Department of the Interior, said the tribe remains federally recognized, and that there was in fact a court decision mandating the department's action.

"In Fall 2015, Interior issued a decision approving a trust acquisition for the Tribe. Subsequently, both a federal district court and a federal circuit court panel comprised of former Supreme Court Justice David Souter, former Chief Judge Sandra Lynch, and Senior Judge Kermit Lipez, found there to be no statutory authority for this decision. The Tribe did not petition for a panel rehearing or a rehearing en banc," he said. "On March 19th, the court of appeals issued its mandate, which requires Interior to rescind its earlier decision. This decision does not affect the federal recognition status of the Tribe, only Interior's statutory authority to accept the land in trust. Rescission of the decision will return ownership of the property to the Tribe."

In addition to the tribe's members potentially having to pay back taxes, losing its land trust could spell other changes, including losing the tribe's court and two-member police department.

After receiving the disestablishment notification, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe filed an emergency injunction and temporary restraining order in the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia. In June, a federal judge ruled in the Tribe's favor, but still allowed the Interior Department to make a new determination.

The amendment will impose a one-year moratorium on the Interior Department from spending any funds to take the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe's land out of trust. The amendment would further protect the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe from endless litigation and fully recognize their tribal lands without interference from the federal government.

Chair of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Cedric Cromwell thanked the legislators for their support of the Tribe.

"This amendment is a major step toward the preservation of our culture, our traditions and our way of life. The support we've received-locally, by our lawmakers in DC and across Turtle Island-has been tremendous. The threat of disestablishment was real, but the action taken today will help to ensure our ancestral homeland is forever protected."

The legislation is now headed to the Senate.


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