Members of the US House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources voted 26-10 to move the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act out of the committee on Wednesday, May 1, passing the legislation on to the full House.
All 10 dissenting votes came from Republicans sitting on the committee, although not all Republicans dissented. No Democrats voted against it.
The House Committee heard proposed amendments to the bill at a legislative hearing on the first day of May before passing it on to the full House.
The bill, if passed by Congress, would protect the tribe’s reservation in Taunton and Mashpee.
“Today’s action by the House Natural Resources Committee provides an incredible lift for my people,” said chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Council, Cedric Cromwell. “The remarkable bipartisan support of the legislation has served to be a unifying force not only across Indian Country but across the United States of America.”
It is unclear when the full House will take up the bill.
While the bill has had some Republican support in the House, opposition by other House Republicans foreshadows a threat to the bill’s ultimate passage through the House and the Senate.
Representative Paul A. Gosar (R-Arizona) proposed an amendment that would strip the tribe of the right to pursue gaming on the reservation. He said that if the bill allows gaming, it would be “mired in controversy” and lead to problems down the line for the bill.
“You take the amendment and this bill sails through,” Rep. Gosar said. “You don’t take the amendment, and it won’t pass.”
Nine of Rep. Gosar’s colleagues among the 13 Republicans present for the hearing agreed.
Rep. Gosar’s rationale for the amendment was it would still provide the tribe what it needed—grant money for its education, housing, health and other needs—but would take away the controversy around it stemming from opposition to the bill from Rhode Island and the reservation’s East Taunton neighbors.
But other members of the committee, including Representative Debra A. Haaland (D-New Mexico) rejected Rep. Gosar’s arguments.
Rep. Haaland noted it was ironic that her Republican colleagues used words such as “suffering” and “entitlement” when speaking against the tribal bill when the country had been founded on the genocide of Native Americans. Rep. Gosar and other Republicans noted that the Rhode Island government and some East Taunton residents have opposed the act because of its unfair advantage the tribe would have with gaming.
Ruben M. Gallego (Arizona-D), chairman of the Indigenous Peoples of the US subcommittee, pushed for the bill’s swift passage without Rep. Gosar’s amendment.
The chairman said that the Mashpees are one of the oldest tribes in the country and welcomed the Pilgrims with the landing of the Mayflower almost 400 years ago. With the backing of the federal government under the Obama Administration, the tribe gained land in trust in 2015.
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But when the administration changed, President Donald J. Trump refused to support the tribe and the “rug was pulled out from them,” Rep. Gallego said.
“It’s a sad statement that nearly 400 years later, the Mashpee Wampanoag still has to fight for the land that is rightfully theirs,” he said. “The least we can do is move this legislation forward.”
Among the Republicans opposing the Gosar amendment was Thomas M. McClintock (R-California). He asked what the local land agency in Taunton had thought of the land’s being turned into a reservation.
Rep. Gallego responded that while he was not sure of the specific agency, he said elected officials in Taunton government have supported the transfer as have several groups in the city, including the Taunton Chamber of Commerce. Voters also supported the land in trust transfer and casino in a citywide vote.
“If there’s a local land agency that is saying ‘We would like to do this,’ I believe we have a responsibility to defer to them,” Rep. McClintock said. “I oppose the amendment and support the bill.”
The committee rejected the amendment with on a 26-10 vote.
Mr. Cromwell thanks Rep. McClintock and Rep. Haaland for their support of the bill.
“I want to expressly thank Congressman Tom McClintock from California and Congresswoman Deb Haaland, of New Mexico,” the tribal chairman said in a written statement. “Their passionate discussion today reiterates the genuine spirit of bipartisanship that has transcended in support of our legislation.”
Congressman Williman R. Keating (Bourne-D), backed by the Massachusetts delegation, reintroduced the tribal bill in the beginning of the current Congress.
The bill would protect the tribe’s 320-acre reservation, which is in jeopardy 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 and its land remains in reservation for the time being.
Rep. Keating’s legislation would overrule the recent Interior Department decision, as well as the lower federal court ruling, and protect the tribe’s reservation.
The bill and the Mashpees’ current fight have drawn the attention of the rest of Indian Country. The federal government has not disestablished an Indian reservation for more than a half-century.
“The threat to the Tribe’s reservation has caused enormous hardship to the Tribe and its members, has threatened its funding, caused it to incur crushing debt, and forced it to close programs and lay off employees,” states a press release from the tribe.