Students at Mukayuhsak Weekuw, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe's language school, celebrated the last day of classes in June 2018. Mukayuhsak Weekuw means "the children's house" in the Wôpanâak language. Photo: Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project

Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe still waiting on Trump administration

Leaders and citizens of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe are still waiting to find out whether their homelands are staying in trust.

In a statement on Monday, Chairman Cedric Cromwell said the tribe's legal team has been told to expect a decision by September 21. He's confident that the land in Massachusetts -- about 150 acres in the town of Mashpee and another 170 acres in the city of Taunton -- will remain in trust amid uncertainty in the Trump era.

"Unless back-room politics comes into play, an objective analysis of the evidence should result in a positive finding,” Cromwell said in a statement posted on

The situation facing the tribe is unprecedented. The federal government hasn't taken an Indian nation's trust land out of trust in more than half a century.

"My best guess would be in the 50s, when the termination era took place," Darryl LaCounte, the "acting" director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, told members of Congress last month, referring to the destructive federal policy that has been repudiated by the United States but could once again rear its head in another form.

While we are based here on the Mashpee Wampanoag reservation, with generous support from the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, we...

Posted by Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project on Thursday, August 24, 2017

But LaCounte -- who was appointed as director following the mysterious departure of the Trump administration's original pick for the post -- was unable to say what is happening with the tribe's land even though a decision has been pending for more than two years.

"I can't speak directly to it," LaCounte said during a July 24 hearing of the House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs. "I don't know the answer to that but I will find out."

The answer has significant ramifications for the tribe, whose ancestors were the first to welcome the first European settlers in New England. Vice Chairwoman Jessie "Little Doe" Baird said Wôpanâak language preservation efforts are directly tied to the lands at risk of being take out of trust.

"Having a reservation allowed us to open our own tribal school," Baird told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs last week. "Wampanoag children attend a tribally-run preschool and kindergarten where they are taught in our language. It would be nearly impossible in an off-reservation, public school to exercise this level of cultural sovereignty."

"We pray that our lands remain in trust so that we may continue this vital work," said Baird, who was the recipient of a prestigious "genius grant" for her efforts to revitalize the Wampanoag language.

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: Jessie "Little Doe" Baird - Senate Committee on Indian Affairs - Examining Efforts to Maintain and Revitalize Native Languages for Future Generations

The answer also impacts a huge economic development project. The tribe's $1 billion First Light Resort & Casino, to be located in Taunton, has been in limbo ever since the land-into-trust decision was sent back to the BIA for further review.

Despite the lack of a formal response, signs from Washington, D.C., have been bleak. A year ago, the Trump administration provided Cromwell with a draft decision that would have seen the lands taken out of trust.

But a top official at the Department of the Interior with a much higher-level political position than LaCounte, who is a career employee, never finalized that decision and instead asked the tribe and opponents of the gaming project for more information.

Amid the uncertainty, the tribe turned to Congress. Bipartisan legislation known as the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act would ensure that the lands stay in trust.

"This bill is critical for the rights and benefits of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, " said Rep. William Keating (D-Massachusetts) , the sponsor of H.R.5244, said during the July 24 hearing. "The tribe is known as People of the First Light, who were an integral part of our country's history and their assistance to the Pilgrims in Plymouth."

Mashpee TV on YouTube: June 2018 First Light News

The bill, whose companion in the Senate is S.2628, closely tracks the language of a 2014 law that protected another tribe's homelands from being taken out of trust. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the legality of that approach in February, in a case known as Patchak v. Zinke.

With the effort seemingly on strong legal ground, every member of the Congressional delegation from Massachusetts has signed onto the measure. The House version currently enjoys support from seven Republicans, in addition to 11 Democrats.

"It's a good piece of legislation," said Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), who has served in Congress longer than any other member.

The BIA approved the tribe's land-into-trust application in September 2015, during the Obama era. The decision came eight years after the tribe's federal status was finalized by the federal government.

But the long delay wait didn't just stall the tribe's cultural sovereignty and economic development efforts, it led to a new level of scrutiny. By the time the decision arrived, the Supreme Court, in a case known as Carcieri v. Salazar, shook up the landscape by holding that the BIA can only place land in trust for tribes that were "under federal jurisdiction" in 1934.

Opponents of the casino in Taunton pounced and cited Carcieri in bringing a challenge to the land-into-trust application. In July 2016, a federal judge agreed that the BIA did not fully address the impacts of the decision with its original decision and sent the matter back to Washington, where it sits today.

“We are an honorable people who stand by our word. We have fought and died defending this country and we have honored our commitments to the commonwealth, the city of Taunton and the town of Mashpee," Cromwell said. "All that we ask now is for justice to prevail so that we are not torn away from the land our people have inhabited for the past 12,000 years.”

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Notice
Oversight Hearing on “Examining Efforts to Maintain and Revitalize Native Languages for Future Generations” (August 22, 2018)

House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs Notice:
Legislative Hearing on Indian Affairs Bills (July 24, 2018)

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