MASHPEE — A week after the Trump administration reversed course on the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s trust lands, members of the tribal community invited nonmembers to meet at the tribe's headquarters Friday to discuss the threat facing their reservation.
The meeting began at 6 p.m. and was open to “tribal, non-tribal, friends, neighbors and families,” according to a post on the tribe's Facebook page. The post said the gathering would be focused on raising awareness about the “urgent need for the (tribe) to retain (its) homelands.”
Despite the open invitation, a reporter was denied entry to the meeting. Outside the tribe's Community and Government Building on Great Neck Road South, a man said the event is a reaction to last week's ruling by the U.S. Department of the Interior that could reverse an Obama-era decision to take the tribe’s land into trust.
By 7 p.m., the parking lot was nearly full; tribe and nontribe members were seen going into the building. Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Chairman Cedric Cromwell and Jessie “Little Doe” Baird were seen inside the building.
In a Sept. 7 letter to Cromwell, Bureau of Indian Affairs Assistant Secretary Tara Sweeney wrote that the Interior Department had found the tribe was ineligible to have land taken into trust because it was not under federal jurisdiction at the time of the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act in 1934, and was thus disqualified under a definition of “Indian” spelled out in the law. Interior officials had previously found in 2015 that the tribe qualified under another definition, and 321 acres of land in Mashpee and Taunton were taken into trust.
The agency was sued in 2016 by neighbors of a planned $1 billion casino proposed by the tribe on the Taunton land. U.S District Court Judge William Young ruled later that year that the federal government did not have the authority to take the land into trust in the way it had, remanding the decision to the agency for reconsideration, which resulted in the Sept. 7 finding.
Sweeney, an Alaskan native who was appointed to the top position at the Bureau of Indian Affairs this summer, was confronted by Baird earlier this week during a meeting of the National Congress of American Indians.
“I can love and respect you as an Indian woman, but we need to stick together,” Baird told Sweeney on Wednesday.
A spokeswoman for the bureau said on Tuesday that, despite the finding last week, the land will remain in trust until litigation concludes, specifically until a “final court order is imposed.” The tribe had appealed Young's decision to the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals.
Robert Anderson, director of the Native American Law Center at the University of Washington School of Law, said he’s never seen the federal government take tribal land out of trust once it’s been acquired. To do so would require an act of Congress, he said.
“This would be the first time,” Anderson said.
But Anderson said he has seen actions by the Trump administration that are inconsistent with federal Indian policies of the past half century. Over the summer, the Interior Department’s acting solicitor withdrew an Obama-era rule that permitted the department to take land into trust on behalf of Alaska natives pending further review, according to the Anchorage Daily News.
The threats facing Alaskan natives are not dissimilar to those facing the Mashpee tribe, Anderson said.
“This administration has been really hostile to tribal interests, especially in land matters,” he said.
A spokesman for the tribe did not immediately respond to a message seeking information about what occurred at Friday's meeting.
— Follow Tanner Stening on Twitter: @tsteningCCT