Native American Tribe Battles to Keep Land

22 April, 2018

Money from casinos has lifted many Native American tribal economies and made some tribes rich.

Take the Shakopee Mdewakanton in the state of Minnesota, for example. Its gaming operations earn tribe members $1 million a year. But the road to casino riches can be rocky, as the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe of Massachusetts has discovered.

Land in trust

The Bureau of Indian Affairs is an agency of the United States government. In 2007, the bureau recognized that the Mashpee had operated as a community since colonial times. It found that 97 percent of Mashpee members are related to the historic tribe.

In 2015, the agency placed about 130 hectares of land "in trust" as the Mashpee's reservation. (The term in trust means someone or something, in this case the federal government, guarantees and protects the property for the tribe). Sixty hectares of the land were in the Massachusetts town of Mashpee. The other 70 hectares were about 56 kilometers away from Mashpee, in the town of Taunton.

"This was one tenth of one third of our total tribal base," said Cedric Cromwell, the tribe's chairman. Cromwell told VOA his people were among the first to welcome English settlers to what became Plymouth, Massachusetts. He said the tribe controlled 36,000 square kilometers of land in the 17th century.

For years, the Mashpee had wanted to build a $1 billion casino in Taunton and agreed to pay the state 17 percent of all its earnings. The tribe made its offer on the condition that no other casinos be built in the area. The town approved their plan and the Mashpee borrowed money to start building the casino.

Members of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe play a drum waiting for news that the tribe has won recognition as a sovereign American Indian nation, Feb 15, 2007, in Mashpee, Mass.
Members of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe play a drum waiting for news that the tribe has won recognition as a sovereign American Indian nation, Feb 15, 2007, in Mashpee, Mass.

‘Not real Indians'

But the tribe had competition. In early 2013, a Chicago developer made an offer to Massachusetts state officials. The developer wanted to build a $1 billion casino resort just 24 kilometers away from the Mashpee casino.

Weeks before the Mashpee were ready to start work on the casino, townspeople from Taunton brought legal action against the federal government. They said the Mashpee were not really "Indian" and they should not be given land. That case was partly financed by the Chicago developer.

Even after the state rejected the developer's proposal, a U.S. District judge ruled against the Mashpee. The ruling required the Bureau of Indian Affairs to reconsider the issue.

Since then, the tribe has been in limbo. It has halted work on the casino project and is now hundreds of millions in debt, and no earnings.

Cedric Cromwell believes the case was driven by race. "The claimants said ‘we're all for a casino in Taunton, but we don't want an Indian casino,'" he said.

Adam Bond, the lawyer who represented the lead plaintiff, denied that race was a consideration. "Does Mr. Cromwell believe that Judge Young is racist because he read the law and gave a correct reading of that law?" Bond wrote in an email to VOA. He called the case, "a clean and fair fight."

FILE — Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Chairman Cedric Cromwell at the community/government Center in Mashpee, Mass.
FILE — Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Chairman Cedric Cromwell at the community/government Center in Mashpee, Mass.

Shifting federal policy?

The Bureau of Indian Affairs reports to the U.S. Department of the Interior. The Interior Department said it would make a decision about the future of the Mashpee's reservation by June 2017, yet no decision has been made.

It may be a long time in coming, suggests Bryan Newland, a Michigan lawyer who specializes in Indian gaming law. He is an Ojibwe citizen of the Bay Mills Indian Community.

Newland said the Trump administration approved a rule governing any requests to put land into trust outside existing reservations. It says those requests should be decided by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C.

"This creates a bottleneck," he said, adding that there are not enough people working at the bureau's headquarters to study the requests and make decisions.

In addition, 15 months into the Trump administration, the Interior Department has yet to appoint an assistant secretary for Indian affairs.

Newland said the department is developing policies about Native Americans without appointing Indian affairs policy makers. He wonders who is actually responsible for decisions.

Cromwell says the Trump administration is working to "detribalize" and take Mashpee's land out of trust.

A Bureau of Indian Affairs spokesperson told VOA she is unable to comment on the case while it is being considered in court.

Enter Congress

In March, Bill Keating of Massachusetts, a member of the U.S. Congress, proposed the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act. If approved, the measure would prevent any effort by the Interior Department to withdraw the tribe's reservation.

"That would be unprecedented," Keating said. "That the government would take away land in trust from the Wampanoag Tribe."

In the U.S. Senate, both Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren have proposed another bill.

Mashpee chairman Cromwell says he remains hopeful, but says if the Mashpee lose the case there will be big problems.

"Housing, education, health care, elder services, and all this is at risk if our lands get taken out of trust," he said.

I'm Kelly Jean Kelly.

Cecily Hilleary reported this story for VOA. Susan Shand adapted the story for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

casino - n. a building or room that has games of chance, such as roulette or blackjack

in trustn. a relationship in which one person or group holds or protects property for someone else

resortn. a place where people go for fun

plaintiff n. a person who brings a case against another person or accuses another person of a crime in a court of law

bottleneckn. something that slows down a process

detribalizev. making someone lose his or her tribal identity

unprecedented - adj. not done or experienced before

elder – n. someone who is older; an older adult