Armed Guards At Mashpee Tribal Council Meetings Have Some Members On Edge
By: Brian Kehrl
Increasing security at Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Council meetings has tribe members questioning both the attendance of guards and the behavior that has led to their presence.
According to multiple tribe members, two security guards each armed with handguns were present for the first time in memory at a tribal council meeting last week.
The presence of guards with firearms marked the latest in a move toward more security at tribal gatherings, a trend that began under the administration of former chairman Glenn A. Marshall and has continued under the administration of Chairman Cedric Cromwell.
The tribe was meeting last week to consider the approval of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Gaming Authority, a new entity created by the tribe to receive and disburse money from the tribe’s gaming investors, among other things. The separate entity is meant in part to separate the tribal government from business affairs relating to the tribe’s pursuit of a resort casino in Taunton.
The proposal, which passed Friday after an unsuccessful attempt to bring it to a vote last Wednesday evening, has been controversial and meetings to discuss it have been particularly contentious, according to tribe members.
Adding to the fire is the upcoming election in which the top four officers on the council are all up for re-election.
But to tribe member Stephanie Tobey-Roderick, the tension is not just related to the election. The level of debt the tribe has taken on to pursue the casino and how the tribal council is handling the project have created a new, more strained environment.
“If there were honesty and transparency, we wouldn’t need all this. We wouldn’t need the security with guns,” she said. “Everyone can talk like this is just an election. But it is really bad right about now, as far as people being afraid and guns being brought to meetings.”
The meeting Wednesday was held in the tribe’s “executive trailer,” a single-wide trailer at the tribal government headquarters on Great Neck Road South. A few dozen tribe members, along with the tribal council and the security guard, were crowded into the small meeting room. The tribal council meeting was akin to a meeting of the Mashpee Board of Selectmen, a weekly event for the tribe’s governing body to consider the business of the tribe.
This article is based on interviews with seven tribe members this week, two of whom asked for their names not to be published out of concerns for retribution.
Mr. Cromwell did not respond to a series of questions about the change in security, what brought it about, and whether it is a permanent new policy or a temporary measure. But Brooke Scannell, a spokesman for Mr. Cromwell, provided the following written statement: “It is routine to have professional security at many Tribal meetings and events, including Tribal Council meetings, general membership meetings and Powwow, just as there are often police details at various meetings and events sponsored by the town.”
Jessie Baird (Little Doe), who is running for vice chairman in the upcoming election, also noted that there are armed police officers at Town Meeting and town elections.
“I do not remember a time prior to, say, 2002 or 2003 when people were screaming in each other’s faces. I have heard people say it was always like this, but that is just not true.” Jessie Baird (Little Doe), candidate for vice chairman.
While federal recognition promises to help the tribe in critically important ways, she said, it also has brought new challenges.
“I do not remember a time prior to, say, 2002 or 2003 when people were screaming in each other’s faces. I have heard people say it was always like this, but that is just not true,” she said.
Ms. Baird said she was unaware of the presence of armed guards last week, but she has noticed stiffer security otherwise as well. She said she does not like it but in a way she understands the decision given some of the behavior at tribal meetings recently.
Ms. Baird said the meetings have reached the point where some tribe members are questioning whether they can bring children or elders.
“I don’t want to have to choose between having my kids experience tribal government or witness someone’s bad behavior or potty mouth or someone standing up and making a threat,” she said. “It is really a shame that we have come to a place that we have to have security present at meetings.”
David L. Pocknett Sr., who is running against Mr. Cromwell in the tribal election this weekend, said he was bothered by the presence of firearms in the room during the prayer held during each meeting.
“I don’t know what the reason was. You can say the town has police officers sometimes or whatever else. I am not afraid of it. I just think that if you are going to pray, you wouldn’t have a weapon around at that time,” Mr. Pocknett said.
Like Mr. Pocknett, other tribe members said they were not clear why the armed guards were necessary, though two tribe members did suggest that the council has been subject to threats.
Tribe member John A. Peters Jr. said he was not aware of the armed guards attending meetings, but he has noticed an increase in private security at meetings. “I am not sure whether it is warranted or not. I have to leave it to them who are there at those meetings and who feel that they need it,” he said.
He said that since the election, debates have become more contentious, although he attributed it to part of the competition. It is fair to ask questions, but he said the tone of the discussion is not always appropriate.
Ms. Tobey-Roderick said the heavy security is reminiscent of the feeling during the Marshall years, when many tribe members reported feeling intimidated to speak out at tribal council meetings. That sentiment of déjà vu is bolstered by statements she has heard from Mr. Cromwell regarding the upcoming election: that a change in administration would threaten the tribe’s casino project, she said. Mr. Marshall took a similar stance regarding federal recognition during his run for re-election in 2005.
Ms. Tobey-Roderick was one of the five tribe members shunned after suing Mr. Marshall and other tribal council officials, claiming that they had misappropriated money intended for the tribe.
“People are afraid to speak now because of their positions and the repercussions,” she said. “If it has gotten this ugly, if it has gotten to this level, to me, there is a problem. I don’t know what to make of it right now, but it really bothers me.”
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