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Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Trump effort to make Mashpee Wampanoag tribe disappear blocked in federal court

By ecoRI News staff

Donations — Mashpee Wampanoag TribeMomentum has swung in favor of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s quest for sovereign land and a casino in Taunton, Mass.

On June 5, Judge Paul L. Friedman of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, rebuked the Trump administration for removing the land from federal trust designation — a decision Friedman described as “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, and contrary to law.”

The 56-page decision doesn’t reward the tribe with federal designation but orders the Department of Interior to reconsider and re-evaluate its 2018 action and better apply a two-part test that determines federal tribal designation.

The so-called “M-Opinion test” describes how to interpret past federal actions to show a tribe’s inclusion in federal reports and activities that may determine federal jurisdiction.


Friedman said the Department of Interior failed to properly interpret a document from the 1820s, known as the Morse Report. The federal report classifies where and how the Mashpee Tribe, among others, should live and recommended that the Mashpees not be relocated because of their strong local ties and connection to the coast and whaling.

The Department of Interior said the Morse Report references were only an awareness of the tribe. Friedman said that interpretation was too dismissive of the report’s significance and that the analysis of the report and related documents is inconsistent with previous federal interpretations.

Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe chairman Cedric Cromwell said the decision “righted what would have been a terrible and historic injustice by finding that the Department of the Interior broke the law in attempting to take our land out of trust.”

The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe traces its ancestry to the Native Americans who first encountered the Pilgrims in the 1600s. The tribe received federal designation in 2007. The land was placed in trust by President Obama in September 2015.

In 2018, the Department of Interior reversed its own decision and removed 321 acres of reservation land in Mashpee and Taunton from federal trust designation. Despite an ongoing appeal, the Bureau of Indian Affairs took action in March to formerly have the land taken out of federal trust.

Losing the “held in trust” designation means the tribe forfeits special legal status and the autonomy to decide how to tax, develop, and manage its land. A $1 billion casino planned for 151 acres of tribal land in Taunton broke ground in 2016 but has been delayed by the federal designation dispute and local opposition.

“While we are pleased with the court's findings, our work is not done,” Cromwell said. “The Department of Interior must now draft a positive decision for our land as instructed by Judge Friedman. We will continue to work with the Department of the Interior — and fight them if necessary — to ensure our land remains in trust.”