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Federal Recognition
Massachusetts tribe eager for recognition decision


A copy of the proposed finding can be read at http://www.doi.gov/bia/federal_acknowledgment_decisions.pdf.

Update: The Bureau of Indian Affairs has recognized the tribe. The decision came via a phone call, followed by a fax around 4:15pm.

Chairman Glen Marshall responded: "We have always believed that the truth of our petition would be recognized, although it has been a long and hard struggle. This decision will ensure that our unique history, culture, and language will not die, and that the men and women who make up this tribe will have the economic tools necessary to remain in our ancestral home."

Chief Vernon Lopez said: "History in one respect now comes full circle. Our ancestors, as a sovereign nation, met the Mayflower, and that meeting led to the birth of this great nation. Today, our government has reaffirmed this status and the faith of that first meeting. But in another respect we are today who we were yesterday; the keepers of an important American story, one that was in danger of dying out, but has been given a new birth."

The tribe is holding its press conference at 4:30pm to announce the decision. Today's ruling sparks a 210-day comment period. A final decision will be issued by March 31, 2007.

Members and leaders of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe of Massachusetts are gathering at their headquarters on Cape Cod this afternoon to learn of the biggest decision in their modern history.

In 1621, Mashpee ancestors greeted the Mayflower and helped the Pilgrims survive their first winter in the land now known as the United States. Nearly four hundred years later, the tribe still lacks formal recognition of the role it played in the development of the nation.

A phone call later today will change that. Jim Cason, the associate deputy secretary at the Interior Department, is expected to deliver an answer on the tribe's 31-year-old application for federal recognition.

"It seems unreal that we are so close to the time when we will hear of the decision on our petition," said Glenn Marshall, the chairman of the tribal council.

Marshall doesn't know what Cason, a non-Indian political appointee who is overseeing the Bureau of Indian Affairs, will say on the other end of the line. But he and other tribal leaders hope it will be the news they have been waiting for all their lives.

"A great deal of time has passed since my people met the Mayflower and greeted the Pilgrims, but we are a patient people," said Vernon Lopez, the tribe's traditional chief. "We look forward to the government's decision with the knowledge that we have stated our case plainly and forcefully."

The case began in the mid-1970s amid a landmark legal battle that saw the tribe lose its land claim in Massachusetts. A jury determined that the Mashpees didn't qualify as an Indian tribe for purposes of federal law.

Three decades and thousands of genealogical records, census documents, maps, newspaper stories and interviews later, the Mashpee believes they can change the course of history. With federal recognition, they hope to provide housing, education, health and other services to their members. A casino, if full Class III gaming is ever legalized in the state, is also a possibility.

The first step to gaining all those rights comes today in the form of a preliminary determination. The document, also known as a proposed finding, will state whether the BIA thinks the tribe qualifies for recognition, based on seven criteria that look at historical, political, governmental and genealogical evidence.

Whether the determination is favorable or not, the tribe will have more hurdles to clear. If it's negative, more evidence can be submitted in hopes of overturning the decision. If it's positive, the tribe still has to wait a year before the decision is finalized in the form of a final determination.

In either scenario, the proposed finding is open for public comment, an invitation for others to criticize, or support, the course of action.

Even though the tribe filed its application long before the BIA ever developed its federal recognition criteria and long before the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 became law, political controversies have colored the debate. Tribal leaders hired the law and lobbying firm of Jack Abramoff, the disgraced former lobbyist whose wheeling and dealing in the nation's capitol led him to plead guilty to defrauding tribes and attempting to bribe a member of Congress.

Abramoff never directly worked on the tribe's case, according to lobbying records filed in the Senate. But he did meet with tribal leaders before they hired Greenberg Traurig, his old firm. Marshall turned over e-mail exchanges with Abramoff to the FBI, and the FBI visited the tribal headquarters as well.

Marshall, a Vietnam vet, credits lobbyists and campaign contributions he and other tribal leaders made with advancing the federal recognition case. During this time, a provision urging the BIA to move forward on the petition was inserted into the 2004 Interior appropriations bill, a vehicle that contained at least two other riders, or earmarks, for Abramoff's tribal clients.

And Rep. Richard Pombo (R-California), the powerful chairman of the House Resources Committee, held a series of hearings on the federal recognition process that placed the Mashpees and other similarly situated tribes in a favorable light. He introduced two bills that would force the BIA to speed up review of petitions that have been languishing for decades.

The measures never became law, and the appropriations rider didn't force the BIA to take any concrete steps in the tribe's favor. Instead, a court case led to an agreement for the BIA to provide the tribe with an answer on a specific schedule.

So far, the BIA has not slipped. The preliminary decision is expected this afternoon, right on schedule. Marshall, Lopez and other tribal leaders plan to present their response at the tribal headquarters in Mashpee at 4:30pm.

"Today, the roles are reversed, and we look forward to the same acknowledgement, and to a time when history is set right, with sovereign status for the Mashpee," said Marshall, citing the tribe's first contact with Europeans.

The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe has about 1,500 members. If recognized, they will join the relatives, the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe, as the only recognized tribes in Massachusetts.

Relevant Documents:
Summary of Acknowledgment Cases | R. Lee Fleming Declaration

Only on Indianz.Com:
Federal Recognition Database V2.0 (May 2005)

Relevant Links:
Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe - http://mashpeewampanoagtribe.com