Mashpee Chairman Says DOI Acting Like a Bully

Cedric Cromwell (l.), chairman of Massachusetts’ Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, calls the decision by the Department of the Interior to disestablish trust lands that the tribe considers sovereign land a “hardcore blow.” He added, “It’s like the punch in the nose from a bully.”

The Department of the Interior has disestablished the 131 acres previously put into trust for the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe of Massachusetts. This makes the first time since the 1960s during the “Termination Era” that land has been removed from trust from a federally recognized Indian tribe.

Tribal Chairman Cedric Cromwell, who has for several years led the tribe’s efforts to put land into trust for a $1 billion casino in Taunton, called the action a “hardcore blow.”

He learned of the action by the Secretary of the Interior through a phone call from the Bureau of Indian last week. He told the Taunton Daily Gazette: “It was absurd. It’s like a punch in the nose from a bully.”

This is the most recent in a series of blows the tribe has received in recent years, which included a decision by a federal judge that the previous action by the Obama administration in 2015 putting land into trust for the tribe violated federal law. That was followed by a ruling by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in February that upheld the earlier ruling.

It agreed that the tribe was not under federal jurisdiction as of 1934 when the Indian Reorganization Act was passed. The tribe has a long history, and is acknowledged by most historians to have been the tribe that greeted the Pilgrims when they landed at Plymouth Rock and helped them to get through the first winter.

The tribe has a separate federal lawsuit active against the Interior Department over the issue, which is waiting for oral arguments to be filed.

The tribe has not lost its federal recognition, which was granted in 2007, according to a press spokesman for the department. “On March 19th, the court of appeals issued its mandate, which requires Interior to rescind its earlier decision,” said the department. “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.”

A bill in Congress, supported by the entire state delegation, that would help the tribe by putting the land directly into trust has been passed by the House but is hung up in the Senate. The bill’s sponsor Massachusetts Rep. Bill Keating calls the action political, blaming it on the fact that one of President Trump’s senior communications aides, Mercedes Schlapp, is the wife of Matt Schlapp, a lobbyist for Rhode Island casinos.

Taunton is about 18 miles from Rhode Island, where Twin River Worldwide Holdings operates two casinos. The president also has ties to other Twin River figures, including its president, George Papanier, who worked as a finance executive at Trump Plaza casino hotel in Atlantic City.

The Schlapp connection is also the reason for the bill’s lack of action in the Senate, he said. President Trump has called for no action on the bill, tying it to the presidential campaign of Senator Elizabeth Warren. Schlapp says his advocacy for Twin River played no factor in the president’s opposition.

“This is just a cruel act and it’s hard to understand how someone could act like that at this time,” said Keating.

The move threatens to force the tribe to shut down services, close its police force and require members to pay state taxes. The land is no longer considered sovereign Indian land. It may also spell the final doom of the First Light Casino & Resort the tribe partnered with Genting Malaysia to build, but which never got past site preparations before the federal court order shut down work in 2016. Genting wrote of its investment two years ago and is no longer funding any tribal activity.

Chairman Cromwell has called on Congress to “immediately take up the bill and pass it,” and has asked for face to face meetings with Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and President Trump. He added, “I just want to call out to all of America to rise up. We’re not giving up and this is not the end.”

Massachusetts’s two U.S. Senators, Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey have pledged to fight the action. They issued this statement: “The Mashpee Wampanoag have a right to their ancestral homeland no matter what craven political games the Trump administration tries to play. Disestablishment of the Mashpee Wampanoag reservation would re-open a shameful and painful chapter of American history of systematically ripping apart tribal lands and breaking the federal government’s word. We will not allow the Mashpee Wampanoag to lose their homeland. We will fight this cruel injustice that promises to have ripple effects across Indian Country.”

Also supporting the tribe is Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who Tweeted “I stand with the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe in their fight to restore lands that belong to them, and I oppose the disgraceful decision by the Trump Administration to disestablish their lands held in trust by the Department of Interior,” adding “We must reset the partnership between the federal government and Tribal Nations by putting land—and control of that land—back in the hands of tribes.”

He also tweeted: “We need a clean Carcieri fix to reaffirm the authority of the Secretary of the Interior to take land into trust for all federally recognized Indian tribes. A Sanders administration will prioritize that.”

Carcieri v. Salazar was the 2009 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that tribes recognized after 1934 could not put land into trust.