State, Mashpee Tribe Gaming Compact Includes Land Claim Settlement Provision

A section of the compact announced this week between Governor Deval L. Patrick and the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe suggests that the state will negotiate with the tribe to settle the tribe’s historic land claims in Mashpee and elsewhere in the region.

The language in the document has caught town officials by surprise and is set to be thoroughly examined by the town’s legal counsel.

What the provision may mean for the tribe’s claims to aboriginal rights to land, in part the result of a 17th century deed granting the tribe land in Mashpee and parts of surrounding towns, was not clear yesterday. Neither the tribe nor the governor’s office would comment on the matter.

The negotiations suggested in the compact would offer a means of settling the Mashpee tribe’s outstanding land claims without litigation.

While the entire text of the compact had not yet been released to the public as of yesterday evening, the Enterprise obtained the section of the document that has raised concern at town hall. Referred to as a concession by the commonwealth to the tribe, it reads:

“…the Commonwealth has agreed to use its best efforts to negotiate an agreement in 2012 with the Tribe with the mutual goal of facilitating the exercise by the Tribe and its individual members of aboriginal hunting and fishing rights on certain lands in the Commonwealth, including public lands and Tribal lands; and to use its best efforts to negotiate an agreement in 2013 with the Tribe to resolve certain title claims asserted by the Tribe involving land and water in and around Mashpee, giving consideration to the conveyance to the Tribe of some such land and water now publicly held.”

Mashpee Town Manager Joyce M. Mason said that she has asked town counsel to obtain a copy of the compact and determine how it may affect the community. The analysis must be done quickly, however, as the legislature must vote on the compact by July 31.

“The language certainly raises questions. My first reaction was why does the state want to get involved in local properties and what happens in our community? We need to make sure our local contingent on Beacon Hill knows what it means to our town before they cast their votes. We have an obligation to let our citizens and legislators know what this really means,” said Ms. Mason, noting that she did not want to cause undue alarm among residents, as it was still early in the information gathering process.

State Senator Daniel A. Wolf (D-Harwich) said yesterday afternoon that while he has not yet had access to full text of the compact, he has already reached out to the governor’s office to obtain more information regarding the potential land negotiations.

“The language we are looking at will require a lot of discussion—and quickly. I am certainly tuned in to this issue and will be getting as much information as possible, and will be contacting officials at Mashpee Town Hall. I am curious as to why that local officials have not been briefed on this matter,” he said.

The tribe and the Town of Mashpee signed an intergovernmental agreement in 2008 in which the tribe waived all claims to private or town-owned property in Mashpee. The agreement, in which the tribe also committed to not build a casino in Mashpee, makes no mention of releasing its claims to state and federally owned land in Mashpee. It does not cover land outside of Mashpee. Nor was the agreement approved by Congress, a necessary step to assure the full legal validity of the contract.

To extinguish their claims to property, tribes around New England have entered into settlements with federal and state governments that have in turn provided the tribes with either land or money. The Mashpee tribe is one of the few federally recognized tribes that has not fully resolved its land claims.

At the time of the negotiations over the intergovernmental agreement, the tribe on several occasions expressed interest in state-owned land at the Massachusetts Military Reservation. The tribe’s claim to land in Mashpee may be the strongest, given the historic deed that was the subject of the tribe’s land suits during the 1970s, but it also has historic ties to land throughout the region.

According the Town of Mashpee Assessing Office, the state’s largest land holding in Mashpee is more than 400 acres of land at South Cape Beach State Park.

The governor’s office yesterday referred all questions regarding the land claims provision to the tribe.

A spokesman for the tribal council did not respond to questions from the Enterprise.

Brian H. Kehrl contributed reporting to this article.

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