The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe held its 96th annual powwow from July 1-3, 2017. This year's event takes place July 6-8 in Mashpee, Massachusetts. Photo: Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe.

Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe welcomes another bill to protect homelands

The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe is gaining more support on Capitol Hill as it defends its homelands and gaming plans from litigation.

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) introduced S.2628 last Thursday to ensure the tribe's land in Massachusetts stays in trust. The bill is co-sponsored by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), who has promised to do more for Indian Country after she claimed to be "part" Native American.

“I would very much like to thank the outstanding leadership of Senators Markey and Warren on this bill to protect our ancestral homeland,” Chairman Cedric Cromwell said on Monday.

The tribe's cause has already garnered bipartisan support in the House. A growing number of Democrats and Republicans are signing on to H.R.5244, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act, a companion to the Senate measure.

“This bill is further evidence that Congress, in both the House and Senate, see it as the honorable and just thing to do -- re-affirm our right to a reservation for our people and to ensure that our tribe will be treated equally under the law as other federally recognized tribes," Cromwell said.

Artist's rendering of the First Light Resort and Casino in Taunton, Massachusetts. Image: Steelman Partners / Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe

The text of both measures closely tracks the language of the Gun Lake Trust Land Reaffirmation Act, a 2014 law which was the subject of a closely-watched case that was just decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. In Patchak v. Zinke, six justices said Congress can protect tribal homelands from litigation.

“All tribes need a land base as a homeland for their people," Jefferson Keel, the president of the National Congress of American Indians, commented after the landmark ruling.

In the case of the Mashpee Wampanoag, the tribe is seeking to restore its homelands in southeastern Massachusetts. But opponents in the city of Taunton, where a casino resort is being planned, have filed a lawsuit that has placed a cloud on the land-into-trust application there.

Should S.2628 or H.R.5244 become law, the litigation -- or any others like it -- "shall be promptly dismissed."

Hearings have yet to be scheduled on S.2628 or H.R.5244. But the latter has seen more support since its introduction on March 9 by Rep. William Keating (D-Massachusetts).

At the time, the bill counted one Republican and five Democrats as co-sponsors, in addition to Keating. Four more Republicans and two more Democrats have signed on in the last two weeks.

The additions to H.R.5244 and the introduction of S.2628 mean all but one member of the Congressional delegation from Massachusetts is backing the tribe.

The pending lawsuit, known as Littlefield v. Department of the Interior, is based on a different Supreme Court decision. In Carcieri v. Salazar, the justices held that the Bureau of Indian Affairs can place land in trust only for those tribes that were "under federal jurisdiction" in 1934.

The Mashpees didn't gain federal recognition until 2007 so opponents believe the tribe doesn't qualify. The judge handling the case already ordered the BIA to consider that issue but a firm analysis has yet to materialize amid threats of rejection and numerous delays.

Regardless of the way the case turns out, Patchak confirmed that Congress can protect tribal homelands from litigation. As a result, least three land-into-trust affirmation measures have cleared the House in recent months, with H.R.5244 and S.2628 being the latest to join the queue.

Despite the seemingly settled nature of the issue, the Littlefield plaintiffs have told the Massachusetts media that they will take the case all the way to the Supreme Court if Congress takes action.

U.S. Supreme Court Decision in Patchak v. Zinke:
Syllabus | Judgment [Thomas] | Concurrence [Breyer] | Concurrence [Ginsburg] | Concurrence [Sotomayor] | Dissent [Roberts] | Full Document: Patchak v. Zinke

More U.S. Supreme Court Documents:
Oral Argument Transcript | Docket Sheet No. 16-498 | Questions Presented

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