Prayer Fires

Danielle Hill, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, tends to a ceremonial fire where she has provided prayers for the tribe in its upcoming court case.

On the night that the Department of the Interior issued an order to disestablish the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s 321 acres of reservation lands, Danielle Hill, a member of the tribe, lit a fire in her back yard in the rain to pray.

“I asked for help, I asked the ancestors for help, the plants and the animals in Mashpee, the water, the ocean, the birds, everything that would be affected by this decision,” Ms. Hill said. In a video post to Facebook, she said she told people “that this fire is here for anyone who wants to come and offer prayers and release any emotions that they are feeling.”

Not long after posting the video, various groups and individuals from across the country began to contact her, Ms. Hill said.

“I had this little epiphany that my call for help has been answered, it actually went out into the world and people are coming forth,” she said.

Ms. Hill has since encouraged native people and non-native people alike to stand in solidarity with the tribe and light their own sacred fire or candle on Sunday, May 3, and allow it to burn until a decision in the court case that has held up the order to disestablish the land is rendered.

“We’re inviting people to pray in the Wampanoag way,” Ms. Hill said. “Everybody, native and non-native, is a part of this earth, asking and connecting and speaking with the earth is probably our most innate, natural, instinctual function.”

The “sacred fires prayer protests,” Ms. Hill said, will help to connect tribal members and increase awareness about the order to disestablish the tribe’s lands amid the coronavirus health crisis, because in-person protests will not take place.

“I think a level of action and mobilization from the community has to be done because this is an issue that affects many people for generations to come,” she said. “It is important that our tribal members are still involved despite being quarantined.”

On Sunday, May 3, prayer fires will be lit across the country.

Lyla June Johnston, a member of Diné (Navajo) Nation living in Santa Fe, New Mexico, said she will be burning a prayer fire in solidarity with the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe.

“For native people fire is not a destructive symbol, it’s actually a symbol of prayer,” Ms. Johnston said. “For us it’s all about asking for help from the ancestors in times of great need.”

The Diné Nation occupy the largest Indian reservation in the United States. It is situated in the northeast portion of Arizona and the northwest part of New Mexico and encompasses nearly 10 million acres.

“Luckily we aren’t in the same exact situation as the Mashpee Wampanoag because we were established prior to the Indian Reorganization Act,” Ms. Johnston said. “But many other tribes were not and if this precedent is set, I could see the Trump administration or a similar administration taking similar actions to erode indigenous land holdings.”

Ms. Johnston, a member of the Dream Warriors, a collective of Native American musicians who have helped host webinars and advocate for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe in recent weeks, said she believes more than 1,000 sacred fires will be lit in solidarity.

“This is not just for the Mashpee Wampanoag,” Ms. Johnston said. “It is for the dignity of America itself, a lot of Americans feel a lot of shame and guilt for the way that Native Americans have been treated.”

Jean-Luc Pierite, a member of the Tunica-Biloxi Indian Tribe of Louisiana and the president of the North American Indian Center of Boston, said he, too, will be lighting a fire in solidarity with the tribe.

“Taking that land out of trust, it impacts their ability to self govern, it impacts their ability to provide services for the tribe,” Mr. Pierite said. He noted that the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is “the aggravating factor here,” making access to tribal services even more important and the move by the Trump administration more harsh.

Mr. Pierite said that precedent by the Interior Department’s move to disestablish the Mashpee Wampanoag’s reservation land “signals danger for all of the tribes within this class” of not being considered under federal jurisdiction in 1934.

He estimated that hundreds of the more than 570 federally recognized tribes could fall within the category of having a precarious status as “under federal jurisdiction” in 1934.

Mr. Pierite said that in addition to pushing for the US Senate to pass the Mashpee Reservation Reaffirmation Act, a legislative affirmation of the Mashpees’ reservation status, the North American Indian Center of Boston is also pushing for the Senate to pass a “Clean Carcieri Fix.”

The legislation, which passed the US House of Representatives in close tandem with the Mashpee Reservation Reaffirmation Act last May, would provide a legislative fix to the 2009 US Supreme Court decision known as the Carcieri decision.

The Carcieri decision interpreted the word “now” in the phrase “federally recognized tribes now under federal jurisdiction” in the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 to mean “in 1934.” The decision significantly narrowed the tribes that could qualify for reservation land in the act and is at the heart of the litigation that led the Interior Department in March to order the Mashpee Wampanoags’ land be taken out of federal trust.

“The national call is for people to go ahead and contact their senators not only have this voted but have it voted in a way that is veto-proof,” Mr. Pierite said.

Through the webinars with the Dream Warriors and other public platforms, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe has urged supporters to write letters to their representatives in the Senate calling for the passage of the Mashpee Reaffirmation Act and Clean Carcieri Fix.

The Mashpee Reaffirmation Act and Carcieri Fix were placed on the Senate’s calendar in May of last year, but further action on the bills has yet to be taken.

The Town of Mashpee, more than 50 Massachusetts legislators and 18 members of the US House of Representatives, including the entire Massachusetts delegation, wrote letters urging the Senate to take action on the reaffirmation bill in May after the Interior Department’s decision to disestablish the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s reservation.

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