Feds rule in favor of Mashpee Wampanoag

A federal reservation ruling in favor of the Mashpee Wampanoag could have implications for the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah). -MV Times

Updated 10 pm

A yearslong battle over the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s 321 acres of reservation land in Mashpee and Taunton is over, and future generations “will forever have a place to be Wampanoag,” the tribe’s chairman told the State House News Service.

The U.S. Department of the Interior’s assistant secretary for Indian affairs on Wednesday, Dec. 22, issued a 55-page decision confirming the legal status of the tribe’s reservation land, and closing the books on a legal saga that has stretched across three presidential administrations, according to the news service.

The ruling has potential implications for the Wampanoag of Gay Head (Aquinnah). The Vineyard tribe requested to open negotiations for a tribal-state casino compact in a letter to Gov. Charlie Baker. But the federal ruling gives the Mashpee tribe, which already negotiated a compact with the state for its land in Taunton, an upper hand. The Mashpee tribe already has a compact with the state, and the legislation that enabled casinos in Massachusetts set aside only one license for southeastern Massachusetts.

Federally recognized tribes like Mashpee and Aquinnah can seek gambling on reservation lands under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA).

Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, chairwoman of the Aquinnah Wampanoag, wrote in an email that Baker’s office has responded to the request. “We’ve had some preliminary discussions, essentially providing an IGRA 101 for the office to more clearly understand our, and any tribe’s, right to game under the IGRA,” Andrews-Maltais wrote.

The Aquinnah tribe does have federal approvals to build an electronic bingo facility on the Island, but hasn’t proceeded, after an appeals court ruled that Martha’s Vineyard Commission and local permitting has to be sought.

The Mashpee tribe was federally recognized in 2007, setting off more than 10 years of legal battles over reservation land for a casino, first in Middleboro and later in Taunton. The Obama administration took the Taunton and Mashpee land into trust in 2015, but in March 2020 the Trump administration ordered the land be taken out of trust. According to the news service, in June 2020 a federal court determined the Trump administration’s 2018 declaration that the tribe does not qualify as “Indian” under the federal Indian Reorganization Act was “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, and contrary to law.”

Andrews-Maltais wrote that she is happy about the federal decision “essentially re-establishing Mashpee’s right to have land placed into trust.”

She sought to dispel any competition between tribes. “We wholeheartedly support Mashpee’s right to game, the same as our right to game under the IGRA,” she wrote. “The IGRA is clear regarding any tribe’s right to game. So we are very happy for our sister tribe. Hopefully this will end at least one of the never-ending challenges to tribes’ rights and sovereignty.”

Updated with comments from Andrews-Maltais.