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The federal Department of the Interior is moving to “disestablish” the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe’s reservation and take its land out of trust, the tribe was informed on March 27. The decision to remove reservation status for more than 300 acres has alarmed Native American groups that the Trump administration could do the same to other tribes.
Mashpee Wampanoag Chairman Cedric Cromwell informed the tribe of the move in a message posted on the tribe’s website last Friday.
“Today’s action was cruel and it was unnecessary. The Secretary is under no court order to take our land out of trust. He is fully aware that litigation to uphold our status as a tribe eligible for the benefits of the Indian Reorganization Act is ongoing,” Cromwell wrote. “It begs the question, what is driving our federal trustee’s crusade against our reservation?”
The Department of Interior, which oversees Native American affairs under its Bureau of Indian Affairs, blamed a federal court decision on March 19 for its decision to remove the special land designations.
“The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe remains a federally recognized Tribe,” the department said in a statement. The statement noted that the trust acquisition was decided in 2015 by the department under the Obama administration. A federal district court and a federal circuit court panel later ruled that there was no statutory authority for this decision.
“The Tribe did not petition for a panel rehearing or a rehearing en banc,” the statement continued. “On March 19th, the court of appeals issued its mandate which requires Interior to rescind its earlier decision. This decision does not affect the federal recognition status of the Tribe, only interior’s statutory authority to accept the land in trust.”
Benjamin Wish, a lawyer for the tribe, told WBUR that the department was never ordered to remove the tribe’s land out of trust.
In his message to tribe members, Cromwell noted that the tribe has lived in the Cape Cod area “since before there was a Secretary of the Interior, since before there was a State of Massachusetts, since before the Pilgrims arrived 400 years ago. We have survived, we will continue to survive. These are our lands, these are the lands of our ancestors, and these will be the lands of our grandchildren.”
What Are Reservations and Land Trusts?
Reservations, which were created by treaty, congressional legislation or executive order, are plots of land “reserved” for a Native American band, village or tribe to live on and use, according to the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). The Secretary of the Interior is responsible for establishing new reservations or adding more land to existing reservations.
Native American land can be held as tribal trust lands, allotted trust lands and fee lands. When the federal government holds land in trust, it gives a tribe special legal status and allows that tribe to decide how to tax, develop and manage that land, according to WBUR.
In 2007, the Bureau of Indian Affairs recognized the Mashpee and said the tribe had operated since pre-colonial times and 97 percent of its members were directly descended from the historical tribe, Voice of America reported.
The Department of the Interior approved of the trust status for 130 hectares of Mashpee land in 2015. Three years later, the Interior Department reversed its earlier decision and claimed that the Mashpee tribe was not under federal jurisdiction during the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act in 1934.
In February, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston upheld the decision of a lower court that ruled the federal government was not authorized to take land into trust for the Massachusetts-based tribe. The tribe declined to challenge that decision, but Cromwell noted that a separate lawsuit in federal court challenging the Interior Department’s 2018 decision remains pending, The Associated Press reported.
Tribe spokesperson Steven Peters told The North Star that the department’s decision to disestablish the tribe’s land “has created a crisis on top of a crisis.”
“We rely on trust land to provide essential services to our tribal citizens and to make connections with our culture. Trust land has allowed us to open a language immersion school that provides cultural and language based education to our youth,” Peters said. “It also has provided us with Indian Health Services to provide necessary support. We are also able to provide food and tribal housing on our land. All of this is now in jeopardy and will destroy our culture and way of living.”
What Does This Decision Mean?
The department’s decision to take the tribe’s land out of trust has led to concerns that the Trump administration may do the same thing to other tribes who were only federally recognized after 1934. Jean-Luc Pierite, who heads the North American Indian Center of Boston, told tribe leadership that the federal government’s action was an existential crisis for those tribes, WBUR reported.
“For the federal government, it could mean a situation in which hundreds of tribes seek reaffirmation through an act of Congress, as the Massachusetts delegation has done,” Pierite said. The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act was reintroduced by Congressman Bill Keating in January 2019.
In his statement to The North Star, Peters said that the Trump administration’s move is an example of the erosion of trust responsibility by the federal government.
“There’s been a slow erosion of trust responsibility by the federal government over the past three years,” Peters wrote. “This is just another step forward in that erosion and can absolutely see this trend continuing for the rest of Indian Country.”
In April 2019, the Trump administration announced it would withdraw the trust status for the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians after endangered bird species were discovered. Kenneth Kahn, tribal chairman for the Chumash, argued that the tribe were the original environmental stewards and would continue to do so as they worked to regain their ancestral land.
“As the original stewards of this land, protecting the environment is a way of life for our tribe,” he said, according to the Santa Ynez Valley News. “We will continue to do so as we fight to protect and restore our historic Chumash homeland.”
What Can Be Done
The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe has created a #StrandWithMashpee petition on MoveOn.org to fight back against the Department of Interior’s decision. Peters encouraged readers to sign the petition and visit the tribe’s website to remain informed about the tribe’s fight to save their land and culture.
“The latest decision is a blow to Tribal sovereignty and undermines the future and sustainability of the tribal nation,” the petition says. The tribe is asking for signatures on the petition to support the legislation introduced by Rep. Keating.
About the Author
Nicole Rojas is a senior writer for The North Star. She has published in various publications, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Europe, Asia, Australia and the Americas.