Mashpee Wampanoag Sign

A Mashpee Wampanoag sign marks land held in trust for the tribe in 2018.

The US House of Representatives passed an amendment on Thursday, July 23 that would prohibit the Interior Department from expending funds to reverse the Obama-era decision that established the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s reservation lands.

The amendment, part of a Fiscal Year 2021 appropriations bill, comes amid years-long legal battles that have endangered the tribe’s sovereignty over 321 acres of reservation land in Taunton and Mashpee.

“This amendment will limit the Trump Administration’s constant efforts to undermine the Tribe’s rights,” Congressman William R. Keating (D-Massachusetts) said in a statement on Friday. “We all know that for the President, this is about his casino lobbyist friends, but for us and the Tribe, this is about people, their rights, their health, their education, and their livelihoods.”

The Trump Administration ordered that the tribe’s reservation land be disestablished in March, but the tribe’s pending litigation and subsequent victory in Washington, D.C. District Court has prevented the order by Secretary of the Interior David L. Bernhardt from taking effect.

“The fact that the Tribe of the First Thanksgiving is fighting for federal tribal recognition should astound everyone,” said Rep. Keating, who lives in Bourne and whose district includes Mashpee.

An affordable housing project on the tribe’s reservation land in Mashpee is nearing completion. However, a $1 billion casino planned for the land in Taunton has not progressed since 2016 when a group of Taunton residents filed suit against the tribe.

“Four hundred years ago, the Pilgrims settled on the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s land and [tribal members] have been forced to fight for their sovereignty and survival ever since,” Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy III (D-Massachusetts) said in the joint statement with Rep. Keating.

“In recent months, the Trump Administration has used the COVID-19 pandemic as cover to try to steal the Tribe’s land and define their people out of existence,” Rep. Kennedy said. “This amendment will put an immediate stop to those dangerous efforts.”

The amendment passed in a voice vote. The appropriations bill, H.R. 7608, passed the House 224-189 on Friday with the full support of the Massachusetts delegation.

The Senate will draft its own version of the appropriations bill and any differences between the House and Senate bills will be negotiated into a final bill.

"This amendment is a major step toward the preservation of our culture, our traditions and our way of life,” said Cedric Cromwell, the chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal council in a statement. “The threat of disestablishment was real, but the action taken today will help to ensure our ancestral homeland is forever protected."

A separate bill to protect and reaffirm the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s reservation land, H.R. 312, has languished in the US Senate since May 2019, when it passed the House 275 to 146.

President Donald J. Trump called on Republicans to vote against the reaffirmation bill on Twitter before it passed the House in 2019, calling it “a special interest casino Bill, backed by Elizabeth (Pocahontas) Warren.”

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