Vice Chairwoman Jessie "Little Doe "Baird of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe addresses the #StandWithMashpee rally at the U.S. Capitol on November 14, 2018. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe faces new obstacle in bid to protect homelands

The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe is facing a familiar foe as it seeks to prevent its reservation from being taken out of trust by the Trump administration.

Opponents of the tribe's stalled casino are seeking to intervene in a lawsuit filed by the People of the First Light. The opponents also want the case moved to federal court in Massachusetts, where a judge already dealt a blow to the tribe by requiring the Bureau of Indian Affairs to take another look at its land-into-trust applications.

"Given that the entire controversy revolves around lands located in Massachusetts, and a pending lawsuit in federal court in Massachusetts still has jurisdiction over the legal status of the lands before final judgment is entered—and that pending action in Massachusetts spawned this closely related remand action—the tribe not only could have brought this lawsuit in the District of Massachusetts, it should have been brought there," the opponents said in their motion to intervene.

The tribe filed the lawsuit last September in federal court in Washington, D.C., after the BIA said the tribe could not follow the land-into-trust process because it wasn't "under federal jurisdiction" in 1934. The casino opponents had made that argument in the case in Massachusetts.

"One of the hardest days I had ... was to deliver the legal determination I was asked to make to Mashpee," Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney said during the National Congress of American Indians winter session in Washington, D.C., last Wednesday.

The lawsuit is still in its early stages. The federal government's response to the complaint is finally due on Wednesday, following repeated extensions of deadlines.

H.R.312, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act, would resolve the uncertainty by confirming that the tribe's lands remain in trust. A companion hasn't been introduced in the Senate amid opposition from the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe, whose leaders are worried that their rights will be infringed by the current language in the bill.

The BIA has acknowledged that there is currently no regulatory mechanism for lands held in trust for a tribe to be taken out of trust. Regulations proposed by the Trump administration would have created such a process for the first time since the disastroue termination era.

But David Bernhardt, the Deputy Secretary of the Interior, told NCAI last Wednesday that the BIA won't be moving forward with the Fee-to-Trust Regulations (25 CFR 151). He made the statement after the chairwoman of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe asked about the status of the proposal, which generated widespread opposition in Indian Country.

“I have no interest in modifying our 151 regulations unless you want them changed so we are not going to go forward with that matter," Bernhardt, who has been nominated to serve as Secretary of the Interior, told tribal leaders.

Read More on the Story
Casino opponents want say in Mashpee tribe's lawsuit (The Cape Cod Times February 18. 2019)
Taunton plaintiffs in tribal casino case request change of venue (The Taunton Daily Gazette February 15, 2019)
Massachusetts homeowners ask to intervene in lawsuit over $1 bln tribal casino (Reuters February 15, 2019)

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