Wampanoag Tribe DC Rally

Congressman William Keating speaks back in November at the Mashpee Wampanoag Land Sovereignty Walk Outside the US Capitol. Rep. Keating has introduced legislation that would reaffirm the tribe’s reservation land.

The Congressional legislation that could protect the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s reservation was introduced to the House of Representatives in its new session, a sign of hope for the tribe in the new year.

Congressman Willam R. Keating (D-Massachusetts) refiled HR 5244, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act, along with co-sponsor Congressman Joseph Kennedy III (D-Massachusetts).

Included in the reintroduced bill is an amendment that reinforces the Intergovernmental Agreement signed between the tribe and Town of Mashpee in 2008, known as the IGA. The amendment was pushed for inclusion on the bill by the Mashpee Board of Selectmen to protect the town from future land-claim lawsuits.

Tribal leaders, and town officials, are praising the effort of the Massachusetts delegation to reintroduce the bill, as well as the bipartisan backers supporting the bill.

“With our limited resources dwindling, we have already had to cut back on vital services and programs we had established to serve our Tribal citizens. Should we lose our reservation, our ability to operate as a Tribal government would be crushed,” said Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Council chairman Cedric Cromwell in a statement issued on Monday, January 7.

“We are extremely grateful that a bipartisan group of Congressional representatives understands the injustice of taking sovereign land away from the first Americans and have moved swiftly to ensure this nation does not return to the dark days of removing indigenous people from their land,” Mr. Cromwell said.

The tribe has been fighting for its 320-acre reservation since a federal judge in 2016 ruled that the US Department of Interior needed to revise its decision for granting the tribe land in trust. Since that ruling, the Interior Department decided that the tribe was not under federal jurisdiction at the time of the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, and thus not eligible for land in trust.

The tribe has since challenged that decision in a district court in the District of Columbia. Congressman Keating also filed legislation last year that would overrule the recent Interior Department decision, as well as the lower federal court ruling, and protect the tribe’s reservation.

Since the bill’s introduction, it has garnered wide support from Republicans and Democrats in the US House of Representatives. The bill currently has 23 cosponsors, including three key Republican congressmen with oversight of Indian Affairs signing on as co-sponsors: congressmen Don Young (R-Alaska), Thomas McClintock (R-California) and Douglas LaMalfa (R-California).

The bill also has backing from town officials in Mashpee.

“I am pleased that the bill has been filed again and hopefully the outcome will be different in this session,” said Mashpee Town Manager Rodney C. Collins. The town manager confirmed that he received word from Congressman Keating on Friday that the bill had been reintroduced.

The town’s board of selectmen had originally held back support for the bill, fearing that an intergovernmental agreement between the tribe and town would be null and void with the passage of the legislation. The IGA is essentially an agreement that the town would support the tribe’s efforts to secure land in trust if the tribe did not claim ownership of land in Mashpee. Among other things, the agreement stipulated that the tribe would not pursue gaming, which is allowed on trust lands, in Mashpee.

After some debate, Mr. Cromwell agreed to the amendment in the legislation. Some members of the tribe, however, have said that the tribal council chairman should have received support of the rest of the council before moving forward. A lawsuit has been filed in tribal court over the matter.

The federal bill was introduced to the House and Senate this past March, and has since had an introductory hearing in the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaskan Natives. The legislation has yet to move forward to a full committee hearing.

In an interview Monday, Congressman Keating said that the bill, with a new Congress, has fresh momentum.

The congressman said that with support from key members of the subcommittee, as well as across the aisle, he is optimistic about its eventual passage. He said that he has spoken with the Democratic leadership about putting the bill on the fast track. “There is an urgency on this and we want get it passed,” Congressman Keating said.

The congressman said that he has been approached by leaders from other tribes who not only share their appreciation for his efforts, but his optimism.

The tribe’s potential loss of land in trust could have an impact on the federal level.

Tribal leaders across the country have questioned whether the federal government is formulating a new policy when dealing with Indian tribes, similar to those from an earlier period when the United States actively moved to disestablish Native American reservations.

But the Mashpee Reservation Act would be a Congressional move to stop such a policy.

The reintroduced bill is one of the first of the new session.

“We are the first indigenous tribal nation to sign a peace treaty with the Pilgrims and provide the land for them to establish Plymouth Colony,” Mr. Cromwell said. “So it is fitting that one of the first bills to be introduced in this new Congress, in this New Year, is one that would protect our ancestral homelands from being stripped away from us.”

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