Wampanoag Tribe Seal

The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe is declaring victory after the dismissal of a lawsuit last Friday, February 19, that posed a lingering threat to the tribe’s 321 acres of reservation lands in Mashpee and Taunton.

The US Department of Interior and a group of residents from Taunton both motioned on Friday to dismiss voluntarily their appeals of a ruling last summer that had protected the tribal reservation lands from being disestablished by the Trump Administration.

The dismissal of the case brings an end to the years-long legal battles that had cast a shroud of uncertainty over the status of the tribe’s reservation lands and stymied progress on the tribe’s construction of a casino in Taunton.

“Today is sakôhsuwôk, a triumph, not only for our Wampanoag Homelands; it is also a triumph for the citizens of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe and our Ancestors who have fought and died to ensure our Land and sovereign rights are respected,” said Jessie (Little Doe) Baird, the vice-chairwoman of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, in a statement.

The Mashpee Wampanoag’s tribal reservation had faced continued legal contests since the Obama Administration established the lands for the tribe in 2015 through the federal fee-to-trust process. The tribe is federally recognized as having maintained social and political relations since first contact with colonists in the 1600s.

The residents from Taunton, known as the Littlefield party, filed a lawsuit against the tribe in 2016 that contested the Obama-era decision to place the land into trust for the tribe under the second definition of “Indian” in the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934.

US District Court Judge William Young ruled in 2016 that the Obama Administration had erred when it determined that the tribe could qualify for land in trust under the second definition of “Indian” because the second definition referenced the first definition of “Indian” in the act.

Judge Young ordered the Interior Department to reassess the tribe’s qualification for reservation lands under the Indian Reorganization Act’s first definition of “Indian” and issue a new decision.

In 2018, the Interior Department, now under the Trump Administration, issued a decision that found that the tribe could not fit that first definition of “Indian” in the act because the tribe could not be considered “under federal jurisdiction” in 1934. A 2009 Supreme Court decision, known as the Carcieri decision, had set the precedent that the word “now” in the first definition of “Indian” in the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 meant “in 1934.” Therefore, to qualify for reservation land tribes must prove that they can be considered “under federal jurisdiction” in 1934.

The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe responded to the Interior Department’s 2018 decision with a lawsuit against the department that argued that the determination that the tribe was not “under federal jurisdiction” in 1934 was “arbitrary, capricious and contrary to law.”

In February 2020, a federal judge ruled against the tribe in an appeal of the earlier case brought against the tribe by the Littlefield party. Then, in March as the coronavirus pandemic swept across the United States, the Trump Administration’s Interior Department ordered that the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s reservation lands be disestablished.

Subsequently, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe filed an emergency injunction in its lawsuit against the Interior Department, prompting a 45-day halt to the order to disestablish the tribe’s reservation land.

In June, US District Court Judge Paul Friedman found in favor of the tribe and ruled that the Interior Department had misapplied its own guidelines when it found that the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe could not be considered “under federal jurisdiction” in 1934. The ruling ordered the Interior Department again to reassess whether the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe qualifies for reservation land under the first definition of “Indian” in the Indian Reorganization Act and protected the tribal lands until such a determination was made.

In August, the Interior Department and Littlefield party appealed the ruling by Judge Friedman. They have now dropped those appeals.

The tribe now awaits a ruling on whether they qualify for reservation land from an Interior Department under the administration of President Joseph R. Biden Jr. As a candidate for president, Mr. Biden released a “Biden-Harris Plan for Tribal Nations” that made reference to the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe by name and promised to “make it easier to place land in trust.”

“The Obama-Biden Administration recognized this vital [land to trust] responsibility and took 542,000 acres of land into trust for tribes—including land that the Trump Administration then tried to take away from the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe,” the Biden-Harris plan said. “As president, Biden will uphold trust and treaty responsibilities and continue to place land into trust for Indian tribes.”

In her statement, Vice-Chairwoman Baird said, “We look forward to being able to close the book on this painful chapter in our history. The decision not to pursue the appeal allows us [to] continue fulfilling our commitment to being good stewards and protecting our Land and the future of our young ones and providing for our citizens.”

US Representative William R. Keating (D-Bourne), whose congressional district includes Mashpee, responded to the lawsuit’s dismissal with a statement.

“The claim that the Tribe of the First Light, the Tribe of the First Thanksgiving, was not an original Native American tribe has always been disingenuous,” Rep. Keating said. “The Trump Administration’s sudden attempt to remove their land from trust last March—in the midst of a pandemic—was heartless.”

Reached by phone yesterday, Rep. Keating said “there was a lack of fairness that dates back to the...Carcieri decision.”

“Among tribal communities across the whole country, they were very concerned about what was going on with the Wampanoags because it has ramifications across the country,” Rep. Keating said.

He pointed to two bills he had sponsored during the previous Congress: a “Clean Carcieri Fix” that had sought to fix the Supreme Court’s 2009 Carcieri decision, and the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act that sought to reaffirm the Mashpee tribe’s reservation land. Both bills passed the US House of Representatives with bipartisan support but never made it to the Senate floor for a vote.

“The reason it didn’t pass the Senate, in my view, was the administration, not that it didn’t have Senate support,” Rep. Keating said. “The problem, frankly, was Donald Trump.”

Rep. Keating said he is now working with Rep. Thomas J. Cole (R-Oklahoma) to co-sponsor a new bill “to correct that whole [Carcieri] ruling so that it doesn’t come back to hurt other tribes in the future.”

With the change in administration, Rep. Keating said he expects the Carcieri fix would pass the Senate and “would fix everything statutorily.”

Rep. Keating also said he is investigating whether another bill to reaffirm the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s reservation lands is necessary.

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