“We certainly believe the Biden-Harris Administration will restore our land, respect Tribal sovereignty, protect missing and murdered Indigenous women, and economic development,” Cromwell told Native Business. (Native Business Photo)
Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Chairman Cedric Cromwell praises The Biden-Harris Plan for Tribal Nations for its commitments to:
- Restore Tribal lands and make it easier to place land in trust,
- Increase safety on Tribal lands and tackle the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women,
- Expand economic opportunity for Tribes and Native-owned businesses,
- Support the “the health and welfare and safety” of Native people,
- Reinstate the annual White House Tribal Nations Conference and leverage the White House Council on Native American Affairs, and more.
Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris are calling the 2020 presidential campaign a “battle for the soul of the nation.”
That slogan could just as easily apply to the fight of the Mashpee Wampanoag during the Trump Administration to defend the soul of its Tribal Nation, including its sovereign right to a land base — the irony of which cannot be overstated. The Mashpee Wampanoag people have inhabited present-day Massachusetts for more than 12,000 years.
“The Wampanoag Nation is known for meeting the pilgrims and creating this national holiday Thanksgiving. In fact, the Wampanoag Nation was the Tribe that gave up the first piece of land to form the colonies, which was the anchor to build the United States of America,” Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Chairman Cedric Cromwell told Native Business.
The Trump Administration has repeatedly tried to strip his Tribe of the 321 acres of land that the Obama-Biden Administration put in trust for the Mashpee Wampanoag in 2015. The most harrowing blow came on March 27, 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, when Chairman Cromwell received a phone call from the U.S. Department of the Interior. He anticipated the department was calling to support the health and welfare of his Tribal Nation, considering the havoc wrecked by the coronavirus outbreak.
“They called to tell me, we’re looking to terminate you, to disestablish your reservation, to take your homelands away,” Cromwell said.
A series of legal battles ensued. Fast forward to June 5, 2020, Judge Paul L. Friedman in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled in favor of the Mashpee Wampanoag, calling the Interior’s original September 2018 decision that the Tribe didn’t meet the definition of Indian, “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, and contrary to law.”
But the war wages on. Interior is appealing Friedman’s ruling in D.C. District Court.
“It’s been very expensive for us to fight these Tribal court cases,” Cromwell told Native Business. “From day one, since the Trump Administration has been in place, they’ve done everything possible within their power to try and kill my Tribe and our economic development. So from a business perspective, we’ve been stifled, we’ve been stifled,” Cromwell said.
Chairman Cromwell is ready for respect. He’s ready for change. Cromwell, and his Tribe, are endorsing Biden-Harris for the Presidency and Vice-Presidency. When the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Council passed a resolution on September 30th to support Biden for President of the United States, it marked the first time ever the Tribe has supported a presidential candidate.
“We certainly believe the Biden-Harris Administration will restore our land, respect Tribal sovereignty, protect missing and murdered Indigenous women, and economic development,” Cromwell told Native Business.
“We’re excited about November 3rd that we’ll have a brand new administration of Biden-Harris that truly supports Native economic development, and first and foremost, the health and welfare and safety of our people,” Cromwell continued.
Pivotal within The Biden-Harris Plan for Tribal Nations is restoring and taking land into trust — a fundamental responsibility of the United States as a federal trustee to Indian Country. Biden-Harris will build on the achievements of the Obama-Biden Administration, which took 542,000 acres of land into trust for Tribes — including land that the Trump Administration then tried to take away from the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe.
On the coattails of Biden-Harris announcing their renewed commitments to Tribal Nations, the Trump Administration released its plan. “At the last minute, in the fourth quarter, Trump released a Native American policy which reflects what Obama and Biden had put in place, but it’s weak, it’s very watered down, and it wasn’t based on any consultation with Indian Tribes. Essentially, it’s not real. It provides no meat on the potatoes,” Cromwell stated.
The financial impact on the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe of fighting the Trump Administration for Tribal land rights has been catastrophic — not strictly due to the costs of litigation, but because of the staggering debt the Tribe has accrued, as plans for its First Light Resort Casino in Taunton have been put on hold. (The casino is named in honor of the Mashpee Wampanoags, also known as the People of the First Light.)
“It’s really a horrific situation that has impacted my Tribe (to the tune of) hundreds of millions of dollars,” Cromwell told Native Business.
On September 7, 2018, when Interior ruled it would not hold land in trust for the Mashpee Wampanoag, it caused the Tribe to lose its bid to build a $1 billion casino in Taunton. Not only did that lead the Tribe to fall into deeper debt with its financial partner, Genting Group, the Tribe lost major economic development programs that benefit Tribal members and the entire region.
“We’ve got an investment group, which is the largest leisure group in the world out of Malaysia, the Genting Group, that came half the way around the world to help my Tribe. To buy those lands in Taunton cost us millions of dollars. They also insisted in funding our Tribal government with loan notes,” Cromwell stated. “They also insisted on loaning us millions of dollars in legal fees to fight these nefarious attacks against my Tribe’s sovereignty, as well as millions of dollars in premium government relationships with lobbyists and contractors to be able to work the Hill for us and the State of Massachusetts, to ensure that my Tribe has a fighting chance for economic development and First Light (Resort Casino), let alone to protect our Tribal sovereignty, and to ensure that our homelands are intact.”
For the Mashpee Wampanoag, and Tribes across Indian Country, land is the backbone of economic development. “A Tribal land base is critical for the exercise of Tribal sovereignty, and for the protection and continuation of Tribal culture, and represents the foundation for Tribal economic development,” Cromwell has said.
In addition to bolstering Tribal economic power by reinstating Tribal lands, Biden-Harris will support the private sector economy. Their plan includes “all kinds of great ideas for Treasury to provide money for small businesses for Native Americans,” said Cromwell, alluding to the plan’s ambitious “restart package” to help Native American-owned businesses survive the current crisis and come out the other side strong. A Small Business Opportunity Fund will leverage more than $150 billion in new capital and opportunities for Native businesses and other small businesses that have been structurally excluded for generations.
The Biden-Harris plan also calls for increasing funding for the chronically underfunded Indian Health Service, and to make that funding mandatory. “Healthcare is important. We have an Indian Health Services campus on our reservation land next to our government center. We need more services. PPE is tough to get. That’s so important to economy — to have the equipment to keep your people safe, so they can continue to thrive,” Cromwell said.
The Biden-Harris Plan for Tribal Nations contains “all kinds of economic development opportunities, but land is important for us,” Cromwell noted, “and also to protect our Indigenous missing and murdered women; that’s so important. That’s one of the pinnacles within their Tribal policy that they released.”
Resolving and guarding against the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women (MMIW) human rights tragedy has always been paramount to the Mashpee Wampanoag — but right now the urgency of the MMIW crisis is hitting very close to home. Currently, the Tribe is missing an 18-year-old Tribal member. Jalahjia Finklea went missing the day before her 18th birthday. Whereas the FBI generally assists in these investigations, the Tribe has heard nothing from the bureau.
“There are indigenous laws that support missing and murdered Indigenous women. That’s important to our Tribe. We have a young lady, Jalahjia Finklea, she’s been gone for over a week, and the FBI, under this administration, has seen it in the news and hasn’t even reached out to help us, to help find her. And that’s very offensive — the fact that we’ve got a Native woman missing and there are federal laws to protect her,” Cromwell said.
Ensuring Tribal Nations have a strong voice and role in the federal government is key to upholding cornerstones of Indian policy, from protecting MMIW to Tribal trust lands. The Biden-Harris Plan for Tribal Nations also identifies how it will build on the Obama-Biden Administration’s record of appointing Native Americans to high-level government positions.
Biden promises to immediately reinstate the annual White House Tribal Nations Conference and leverage the White House Council on Native American Affairs. “They met with Tribal leaders, and formed committees in Indian Country to put together policies that reflect our goals and needs,” Cromwell said of the White House Council on Native American Affairs, created under the Obama-Biden Administration.
In their 15-page plan for Tribal Nations, Biden and Harris ensure their administration will provide resources and assistance for Tribes to dismantle long-standing economic challenges, including deficient infrastructure, housing instability, unemployment, and insufficient access to capital.
The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe is currently erecting 52 well-built homes financed with affordable housing tax credits on its reservation land — but a second Trump term could undermine their progress. “This is going to give us the ability to provide quality housing for our elders, for all our people in need of housing on Cape Cod and Mashpee, because as we know, Cape Cod is a resort city,” Cromwell said alluding to the high costs of living. “If our land comes out of trust, we have to adhere to the local town and municipality laws on zoning, and they’re different,” Cromwell said. “We’re able to put more densely populated houses within square acreage.”
Funding for the Tribe’s language school also relies on the security of Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal trust lands. “If this land comes out of trust, the school is negatively impacted. The school provides a great service to our Tribal children. It’s amazing that our people are speaking and learning all the proper educational pieces with our language at the forefront,” Cromwell told Native Business.
Given their current trust status, the Mashpee Wampanoags additionally receive critical EPA funding to protect and revitalize their land. The Tribe resides on a big aquifer in Mashpee, so the Tribe is constantly testing the nitrogen levels of the water, in addition to cleaning up local ponds decimated by a local military base’s bombing practices in the 1970s and ’80s. “That seeped into our lands, which really polluted our ponds,” and also led to high cancer rates among Tribal citizens. “We can’t access that important funding to help clean up the environment, because this administration has been working against us diligently all day long. It’s sad, what’s taking place,” Cromwell said. “It’s very said; it’s very violent. But we’re not afraid. We’re standing up for our rights and we’re fighting.”
While the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe continues to fight for the soul of its Nation, Cromwell is hopeful that Biden and Harris will win the election, and see to it that the federal government fulfills its trust and treaty responsibilities to Tribal Nations.
“We have endured the pain of the Trump Administration, and I’m shocked that we’re still standing. We’re still in the arena fighting. We’re not going to give up,” Cromwell reiterated. “And we’re very hopeful for a change in administration, for a Biden-Harris Administration, so that we can get our business back on track again, and be fruitful and prosperous.”