Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Asks Congress to Reaffirm Reservation

Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Chairman Cedric Cromwell: “A Tribal land base … represents the foundation for Tribal economic development.” (Courtesy Mashpee Wampanoag)

On July 24, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe finally got the opportunity to appear before Congress when the House Natural Resources Committee’s Subcommittee on Indian, Insular, and Alaska Native Affairs held a hearing on H.R. 5244, the “Mashpee Wampanoag Reservation Reaffirmation Act.”

In his opening statement, Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Chairman Cedric Cromwell noted the Mashpee’s storied role in United States folklore and long history with the people of the United States. The current Mashpee Tribe’s ancestors welcomed the Pilgrims when they landed at Plymouth Rock, Cromwell said.

“We are the Tribe that helped save the first colonists from starvation and we are the last surviving Tribe of the original nine Tribes granting Indian Title to lands forming Plymouth Colony,” Cromwell said in his opening remarks before the committee. “The Mashpee were well known to the young United States government, and the Tribe and its members repeatedly have been enumerated in federal reports listing Tribal nations within the United States’ jurisdiction and federal census documents during the 1800s and through the mid-1900s.”

This enumeration is at the heart of the Mashpee’s current struggle. The Tribe has a history, culture, and government that predates the founding of the United States, but eventually lost all its historical lands as a result of the federal government’s failure to protect those lands from encroachment.

With no land base, the Mashpee found difficulty gaining federal recognition. However, in 2007 the Cape Cod-based Tribe finally gained federal recognition after decades of organizing, which also opened the door for lands to be taken into trust to form a reservation.

In 2015, the Department of the Interior did just that – taking into trust 170 acres of land in Mashpee and an additional 150 acres in nearby Taunton. While this 320 acres represented only a small fraction of what was the Tribe’s original lands, which stretched from Cape Ann into Rhode Island, the Tribe saw this as an important victory and the rectification of an historical injustice.

“The Department’s decision finally allowed Mashpee to have a land base on which we can exercise our sovereignty, provide for our people, build homes, and conduct the business of government,” Chairman Cromwell told the Committee. “Our reservation includes our Meeting House, Government Center, burial grounds and cemeteries, tribal museum, tribal offices, conservation land, and cultural recreation land, and we are working on additional tribal housing and economic development projects.”

The Mashpee’s victory was short-lived, however. Shortly after lands were taken into trust on their behalf, a group of local residents filed suit in federal court to challenge the Department’s action and invalidate the Tribe’s claim to trust status. The court rejected Interior’s original legal theory, which was based on the second definition of “Indian” in the Indian Reorganization Act, thereby calling into question the future of the reservation and creating confusion about the Tribe’s legal status.

Pursuant to the Department of Interior’s role as trustee for the Tribe, in December 2016 the Department of Justice defended its decision by filing an appeal to the court’s decision. But in 2017, with a new administration in office, the DOJ withdrew from the litigation and ceased defending the status of the Tribe’s reservation in court. This, the Mashpee says, is why Congress must step in to exercise its plenary power over Indian affairs, explicitly reaffirming the taking of land into trust for the benefit of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe and ratifying and confirming the Secretary of Interior’s decision to do so.

For the Mashpee, losing their trust status would also mean losing major economic development programs that benefit Tribal members and the entire region.

“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 said. “Having reservation land where we can generate Tribal revenue increases our self-sufficiency and decreases our dependence on federal funding and grants.”

“What is more,” Cromwell continued, “economic development on our reservation land will not only serve to benefit our members, but will also bring greater economic prosperity to surrounding regions. If our reservation is preserved, we will be able to create thousands of new jobs, and follow through on our commitments to help fund millions of dollars’ worth of local infrastructure improvements.”

These improvements include more than $100 million in commitments, including $30 million in upgrades to the Taunton water system and roadways, $10 million per year to local first responders and Taunton city services, and $65 million per year to the State for broader community development initiatives that would benefit the entire state. Cromwell says this would be the single biggest urban renewal effort in Southwestern Massachusetts in a generation.

With all of these economic development efforts come jobs and other key benefits to the Tribe, region, and state.

H.R. 5244 was introduced in March by Rep. William Keating (D-Mass.), and currently has 18 cosponsors comprising a bipartisan group of legislators from across the country. A companion bill, S. 2628, has been introduced in the Senate. It has received widespread support from across Indian country, including support from the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), United South and Eastern Tribes, Apache Alliance, Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, Midwest Alliance of Sovereign Tribes, National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA), the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council, and more than two dozen individual Tribes.