Back when Europeans first landed in the New World in 1620, there were 69 tribes in the Wampanoag Nation, extending from Provincetown to Narragansett Bay, including Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. Now there are three main tribes — Mashpee, Aquinnah, and Manomet. It was the Wampanoags who met the Pilgrims 400 years ago.
The First Congregational Church of West Tisbury sent out invites to a Zoom listening session held on May 4, hosted by the church and the Wampanoag Tribe of Mashpee. The church has a newly formed but vibrant Racial Justice Team, who had heard about the federal order handed down to the Mashpee tribe on March 27. The Secretary of the Department of the Interior, David Bernhardt, ordered that the Mashpee reservation, approximately 320 acres — 150 in Mashpee and 170 in Taunton — be disestablished, and the land taken out of trust. Ironically, it was this tribe that gave up the first piece of land to be settled by the Europeans, at Plymouth. So in this 400th anniversary year of the settlers landing in Plymouth, the federal government tells the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe that they are taking action to disestablish their 320-acre reservation.
That sounds like a case of racial injustice of the maximum degree.
“When our church’s newly formed Racial Justice Team heard about the federal order, they reached out to the Mashpee leadership to ask how they could be of assistance. We agreed that as a first step, our congregation and community would benefit from a listening session. As a nearly 350-year-old congregation founded on Wampanoag land, I believe we have a responsibility to honor and secure the sovereignty of the People of the First Light,” the Rev. Cathlin Baker, the church’s pastor, wrote in a press release announcing the listening session.
I signed up for the Zoom session because I wanted to hear what the Mashpee Wampanoag tribal leadership had to say about this. The tribe’s chairman, Cedric Cromwell, and vice chairwoman, Jessie “Little Doe” Baird, both spoke at the event.
Cromwell explained that on the March day when he got the call from the Department of the Interior, he was expecting the government to ask him how the tribe was faring during the coronavirus pandemic, did they need any help; or maybe it would be a friendly “How are you doing?” type of call.
Instead, he was told that the tribe’s homelands will be taken, so all the programs the tribe has developed around housing, governance, their school, will all be in jeopardy because they will no longer have sovereignty over their land. The grants that were awarded for tribal programs may no longer apply. The teachers at their school would need different certifications, etc.
“We would have to adhere to the local municipality,” Cromwell said during the listening session. He said if the tribe was disestablished, it would “pretty much destroy us.”
Baird spoke as well, saying, “The issue is really an existential threat to us. It’s about sovereignty.”
Baird said the tribes have a special relationship with the U.S. that was written into the Constitution by the founding fathers.
“Hundreds of millions of acres were taken from tribes by poor federal policies and anti-Indian laws and assimilation attempts,” she said. “The tribes have paid for our right to continue to govern ourselves. We’ve paid with our blood and with our land.”
She said that when the U.S. takes a tribe into trust, there is a separate border around the land, just like a border around the U.S., and the government has a responsibility to keep that trust, to ensure that lands are not removed without express permission from Congress.
The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s land was taken into trust under the Obama administration. Now, the current administration is saying that the tribe doesn’t meet the definition of Indian, Cromwell explained. Taking the land out of trust means that it comes under state and local laws, and the state can tax the land and take it away if the taxes aren’t paid.
You don’t have to read very far into Scripture to find out how important the earth is, how important land is. Psalm 24 says, “The earth is the Lord’s and all it holds, the world and those who dwell in it.” For Native Americans, the land is everything. For the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, they’re walking on the same ground their ancestors walked. They once had thousands of acres and now they’re fighting for one-half of 1 percent of that land, Cromwell said.
I asked George Rivera, a member of the First Congregational Church’s Racial Justice Team, what he thought of the order.
“My own sense is that it never ends, does it?” he said. “From the very first contact the Europeans had with native people on this continent, they’ve been taking land from them, and it just feels like it never ends. The most recent action in Mashpee feels like a part of a larger movement to take native lands across this country once again. If the federal government is successful in removing Mashpee land in trust, it will set a dangerous precedent for other tribes.”
Researching the Mashpee tribe proved complicated for me. There are political issues, gaming issues, and my own lack of understanding of the relationship between the U.S. government and the tribe across history. By no means do I feel that I’ve grasped everything.
The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe wasn’t recognized as a tribe previous to the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act. The tribe was just federally recognized in 2007, the land finally put into trust in 2015. Baird said that when you ask the federal government to hold your land in trust, there’s a lengthy application process. In this case there were more than 14,000 pages of documentation, she said. You have to show you meet the requirements. So they gathered the documentation needed to be recognized, they were recognized in 2007, and now the federal government says they do not meet those requirements. To me it sounds like they’re being jerked around. Again.
Right now, there’s a bill, H.R. 312, introduced by U.S. Rep. William Keating and passed in the House almost exactly one year ago, that reaffirms the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s reservation. It’s languishing in the Senate. There’s another bill, H.R. 375, that “applies the Indian Reorganization Act to all federally recognized Indian tribes, regardless of when the tribe became recognized. The amendments made by this bill are retroactively effective as if included in the Indian Reorganization Act.” That bill is also languishing in the Senate. Basically, that 1934 law says that the Department of Interior could not take land into trust for the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe because the tribe had not been under federal jurisdiction when the Indian Reorganization Act was enacted back in 1934. But the tribe was recognized in 2007. Now they’re being “unrecognized”?
It must feel like one step forward, a million steps backward to the citizens of the tribe.
“We helped this country’s first settlers through their first harsh winters,” Cromwell said at the listening session. “They deliver this dangerous blow to my tribe … this is the thanks we get for helping them to form this country.”
Despite the tangled research I tried to complete while writing this, one thing seems clear. Historically, Native Americans have given up just about everything, and now we want more.
We always have a choice, though. We can learn about an injustice, think it must be awful, and then we can go on to the next compelling topic. Or we can take action, write a letter to politicians asking them to listen to us, to do the right thing. Find out more about how we can support the Wampanoag tribes.
If you want to learn more about the issue, or if you want to #standwithmashpee, visit mashpeewampanoagtribe-nsn.gov.