Leaders of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe cast their ongoing battle with the federal government to maintain their reservation as an issue of American history and tribal sovereignty during a virtual listening session with a Martha’s Vineyard church on Monday, May 4.
Tribal Council chairman Cedric Cromwell and vice chairwoman Jessie (Little Doe) Baird discussed the litigation that has played out in courts and took questions from the more than 100 users hosted by the First Congregational Church of West Tisbury over the videoconferencing platform Zoom.
“When we talk about what’s important to American citizens, this is important to the nation,” Mr. Cromwell said. “We are the foundation fabric forming this nation, it’s true American history, our nation still remains here today, but we’re being attacked by our own country.”
The tribe, which is federally recognized as having maintained social and political relations since the time of first contact, was notified in March that the US Department of the Interior had ordered their 321 acres of reservation land be disestablished.
Mr. Cromwell recalled being surprised to learn of the order in a phone call from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which he initially thought was the government fulfilling its trustee relationship with Native American tribes during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The call took place “on a Friday in the midst of a pandemic where we’re scrambling to provide services and support for our tribal citizens. We’re very concerned about the life and safety of our tribal citizens and that was our primary focus,” the chairman said.
The disestablishment of the tribe’s land has been held up through action filed in a Washington, DC, district court case that is expected to be heard this month.
The ability of the tribe to operate as a government for its more than 2,300 members would be injured if the order to remove the lands from federal trust—an administrative process which has not been laid out—moved forward, the tribal leaders said.
“This issue that we’re facing really is an existential threat to us. It’s about sovereignty,” Ms. Baird said. “Sovereignty is the exercise of ultimate authority and government of your nation.”
The tribe, recognized as a sovereign entity under federal policy, operates its own police department, courts, zoning and other functions of governance on the 321 acres held through the administrative trust process. Removal of the lands from trust would revert the lands to private property subject to local authorities.
In effect, the tribal police department would be disestablished, the court system rendered superfluous and projects such as the 42 units of affordable housing partially constructed on reservation land in Mashpee would be subject to local zoning bylaws, though already built to fit tribal zoning.
“Hundreds of millions of acres were taken from tribes with poor federal policies and anti-Indian laws and assimilation attempts and the United States of America recognizes that the tribes, indigenous people of this land, have paid for our right to continue to govern ourselves, we’ve paid with our blood and we’ve paid with our lands,” Ms. Baird said.
She noted that the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, the law at the heart of the litigation that has held up the disestablishment of the reservation, was “passed to address some of the land loss which has resulted in economic poverty and loss of cultural cohesion and culture for tribes.”
The Wôpanâak Language Reclamation school, an immersive language school in the Wampanoag language, would face increased challenges and the amount of federal funds received by the tribe would be decreased by the disestablishment of the reservation, as well.
Also, without a reservation the tribe would not be eligible to partake in Indian gaming, as it had planned to do with a $1.5 billion casino on reservation land in Taunton.
Indian gaming, as laid out in the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988, is allowed on reservation lands “as a means of promoting tribal economic development, self-sufficiency, and strong tribal governments,” the act states.
In response to a question submitted by a viewer, Mr. Cromwell said gaming was the impetus for the Interior Department move to disestablish the tribe’s land.
“It’s clear there is a big force associated with the Trump administration and unfortunately I have to say it’s related to gaming,” the chairman said. “It’s politically driven, it’s politically charged, we’ve seen tweets from this president talking about Senator [Elizabeth] Warren.”
Last year, when a bill that would reaffirm the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s reservation land was before the US House of Representatives, President Donald J. Trump called the bill in a tweet, “a special interest casino Bill, backed by Elizabeth (Pocahontas) Warren.”
The bill, which passed the House 275-146 last May, has since stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate. The tribal leaders urged allies to call their senators to urge action on the bill, H.R. 312.
“Call your senators up, [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell, the White House, and do this with vim and vigor as if this is our last chance to survive in this nation as people together under our creator,” Mr. Cromwell said.
Ms. Baird said, “We are not taking this lying down and we, as the Mashpee Wampanoag Nation, are going to ensure that when we lay down in our bed to die that we’ve left something for our children and we will fight until that happens and I think that we cannot do that without allies, we cannot do that without other people that understand what the word justice really means.”
The minister of First Congregational Church, the Reverend Cathlin Baker, said, “We invite each of you, in your own way, and within your own community to stand with Mashpee, your advocacy and your prayers are so critical at this time.”