Mashpee tribe decision won’t affect Aquinnah

Island tribe leader calls it a ‘hostile’ act by Department of the Interior.

The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah)'s land is not affected by a ruling Friday, but tribe leaders say it's an "unnecessary hostile act" toward Mashpee. -Gabrielle Mannino

On Friday, the U.S. Department of the Interior removed lands taken into federal trust for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, a sister tribe to the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah).

In a post on the Mashpee tribe’s website, tribal council chairman Cedric Cromwell wrote, “the Bureau of Indian Affairs informed me that the Secretary of the Interior has ordered that our reservation be disestablished and that our land be taken out of trust.”

In February, the Mashpee tribe lost an appeal of a lower court ruling, which found the Interior Department was not authorized to take the 321 acres of land into trust in 2015, which included land for a casino in Taunton. A separate federal case is pending.

U.S. Rep. William Keating, D-Bourne, in a statement issued by his office, condemned the Trump administration’s action. “In a time of national health and economic emergency, the Secretary of the Interior should be reaching out to help all Native American tribes,” Keating said. “This is one of the most cruel and nonsensical acts I have seen since coming to Congress. The Secretary should be ashamed.”

Keating has filed legislation Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act (H.R. 312) to have land taken into trust for the tribe. The Mashpee tribe, which was federally recognized in 2007 after a lengthy process, struggled to have land taken into trust because of a 2009 Supreme Court ruling known as the Carcieri decision, which called into question the government’s authority to take land into trust after the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act.

What makes the Aquinnah Wampanoag different is that the tribe reached a settlement agreement with the town and state that was codified by Congress in 1987. Under that agreement, the tribe was given control of nearly 500 acres on the Island.

Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, in an email to The Times, explained the difference between the two tribes. “Our tribal lands are not in peril of having its trust status changed. This action is specific to the Mashpee tribe’s lands, and applies to the status of their lands placed into trust in Mashpee and Taunton. However, it’s an indication of the climate that we, as all tribes face, with regard to getting any additional land into trust,” she wrote. “Our tribal lands are considered a ‘Mandatory Acquisition,’ meaning that Congress specifically instructed the Secretary of the Interior to take lands into trust on our behalf, as part of the federal law known as the Massachusetts Indian Land Claims Settlement Act PL-25 U.S.C. § 1771, et seq.  Since this was an expressed intent of Congress, authorizing, and more importantly, directing the Secretary of the Interior to take land into trust for our Tribe; our Trust Lands are outside the impacts of this decision and action.”

Andrews-Maltais also touched on the uncertainty of the situation. “The Department of the Interior, as our cognizant agency, is supposed to be working on behalf of tribes (Indian country) and should be doing their absolute level best to add to tribal homelands, not working at taking lands away,” she wrote. “I’ll simply reiterate and add to the sentiment of several legislators and tribal leaders’ statements, that in a time of this national health and economic crisis, the Secretary of the Interior, who is responsible for the health, education and well-being of Tribes, should be even more focused on upholding its trust and treaty responsibility, and reaching out to help all tribes; not working towards eroding our rights to our lands and our sovereignty. We are the only ‘people’, the only real human condition contained within the Department of the Interior’s portfolio and under the Secretary’s direct responsibility. This is not what we as Tribal Leaders would expect from our fiduciary trustee, and certainly not while we are all facing this pandemic crisis.”

Calling it an “unnecessary and hostile action,” Andrews-Maltais called on Congress to pass a bill often referred to as “the Carcieri fix.”