Federal Court Sides With Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe in Land Suit

“We all share a profound belief in the importance of tribal sovereignty as a vehicle to preserve and protect our culture and traditions. This is what has driven our people to fight day in and day out to ensure our land remains in trust,” Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Chairman Cedric Cromwell said.

Case remanded to Secretary of Interior 

A victory came Friday in the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s yearslong saga to maintain its sovereign right to land.

A federal judge has ordered the Department of Interior to reexamine its previous decision that disestablished the Tribe’s reservation status in Massachusetts.

“Today, the DC District Court righted what would have been a terrible and historic injustice by finding that the Department of the Interior broke the law in attempting to take our land out of trust,” said Cedric Cromwell, Chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Council, in a statement


“While we are pleased with the court’s findings, our work is not done,” Cromwell continued. “We will continue to work with the Department of the Interior—and fight them if necessary—to ensure our land remains in trust.”

Judge Paul L. Friedman on June 5 ordered Interior to maintain presently the reservation status of the Tribe’s 321 acres of land that the department revoked on March 27, 2020. In his opinion, Friedman said the Department of Interior’s September 2018 decision that the Tribe did not meet the definitions of “Indian” under the Indian Reorganization Act, because the Tribe was not “under federal jurisdiction” as of 1934, was “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, and contrary to law.”

READ MORE (March 2020): Secretary Of Interior Strips Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe of its Land

(July 2018): Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Asks Congress to Reaffirm Reservation

Judge Friedman has remanded the 2018 decision to the Secretary of the Interior for a thorough reconsideration and re-evaluation of the evidence.

Judge Friedman’s opinion said the Interior’s 2018 decision was “unlawful” and an improper application of the two- part test set forth under the 2014 M-Opinion. The DC District Court judge has now directed the Interior to reevaluate evidence presented by Mashpee and issue a new determination in keeping with the Court’s opinion, the 2014 M-Opinion and the evidenced permitted therein.

“The conclusions about each piece of evidence evaluated in the 2018 [decision] show that the Secretary evaluated each piece of evidence in isolation,” Judge Friedman said about how Interior misapplied the 2014 M-Opinion in its 2018 order. Interior must view the evidence “in concert,” Judge Friedman said. 

Judge Friedman’s June 5 decision bars Interior from applying its new four-part test in determining whether Mashpee was “under federal jurisdiction” in 1934. It also prohibits Interior from taking Mashpee’s land out of trust or disestablishing the Mashpee reservation until Interior has made a determination on remand. 

“The Court hereby directs the Department to apply the two-part test in [the M-Opinion] — correctly this time — on remand,” Judge Friedman said.

The Interior’s action in March to remove the Tribe’s 321 acres from federal trust protection in Mashpee and Taunton, Massachusetts, sought to undermine the federal legitimacy of a Tribal people who welcomed the first settlers to Plymouth Rock in 1620. The Cape Cod-based Tribe gained federal recognition in 2007, and in 2015, the Obama Administration restored 321 acres of land in trust for the Tribe. That land base represents a small fraction of the Tribe’s original homelands, which stretched from Cape Ann into Rhode Island.

READ MORE: The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s Fight for Trust Status Is About More than Land