The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe held its 96th annual powwow from July 1-3, 2017. Photo: Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe

Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe calls Trump team for help on eve of Thanksgiving

In his first-ever Thanksgiving proclamation, President Donald Trump credited the Wampanoag people with helping the Pilgrims make it through their first year in the Americas.

"They had survived. They were free," Trump wrote of the new arrivals in his November 17 proclamation.

"And, with the help of the Wampanoag tribe, and a bountiful harvest, they were regaining their health and strength," Trump continued.

Nearly 400 years later, as Americans prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving, the descendants of the people who helped the Pilgrims want the Trump administration to return the favor. The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe is calling for the approval of its long-delayed land-into-trust application in Massachusetts.

"Today, we're being tested by the courts and tested by people that say no to the tribe," Chairman Cedric Cromwell said in a video message delivered on the eve of the national holiday. "But we believe in yes, because the tribe provides for everyone."

Indianz.Com on YouTube: Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe - Thanksgiving 2017

The Bureau of Indian Affairs approved the application in September 2015. The landmark decision paved the way for the tribe to start work on the First Light Resort and Casino in the city of Taunton.

But litigation has stalled the $1 billion project. And despite promises by the Trump administration to come up with a revised decision, the tribe hasn't heard anything from Washington, D.C.

"I ask you to join me and my people, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Nation, in holding this White House accountable," Cromwell said.

Cromwell pointed out that Trump recently issued his first-ever proclamation for National Native American Heritage Month. In it, the president said he remains "committed to tribal sovereignty and self-determination."

"A great nation keeps its word, and this administration will continue to uphold and defend its responsibilities to American Indians and Alaska Natives," Trump stated.

President Donald Trump is joined by First Lady Melania Trump and their son, Barron Trump, at the pardoning of the Thanksgiving turkey on November 21, 2017. Photo: White House

The stalled casino would have opened this summer were it not for the litigation. Cromwell said the project represents an investment not just in its future, but that of the region, thus continuing a tradition of sharing that dates back to the arrival of the Pilgrims in 1620.

"Today, the Wampanoag nation looks to bring economic development to one of the poorest hit regions in the commonwealth of Massachusetts," Cromwell said. The casino site is only about 24 miles from Plymouth Rock, the famed Pilgrim landing site.

Despite the tribe's long relationship with Massachusetts, its relationship with the government that eventually became the United States was less clear. It took the tribe 30 years for its federal recognition petition to become finalized at the BIA.

The lack of clarity is at the heart of the lawsuit, known as Littlefield v. Department of the Interior. The plaintiffs -- some of whom would be neighbors of the casino -- contend the tribe cannot follow the land-into-trust process because it wasn't "under federal jurisdiction" in 1934.

The BIA didn't resolve that issue when it approved the tribe's application. Instead, the agency relied on another provision in the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 and said the tribe and its citizens were living on a "reservation" at that time.

A federal judge eventually determined that such an analysis was incomplete and sent the matter back to the BIA for reconsideration.

Artist's rendering of the First Light Resort and Casino in Taunton, Massachusetts. Image: Steelman Partners / Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe

Time ran out before the Obama administration could come up a new answer. That's left the the tribe in the hands of the Trump team, whose officials have raised numerous questions about new casinos.

"Interior believes the process of trust land acquisition for on-reservation parcels is an important and routine matter that creates economic drivers for tribes," Jim Cason, the Associate Deputy Secretary at the Department of the Interior, said in testimony to Congress on July 13.

"However, taking off-reservation lands into trust may pose complications for the department, as well as some members of the public, particularly when fee-to-trust applications are for gaming purposes," Cason said.

Cason, whose position at the department did not require Senate confirmation, in fact was prepared to reject the tribe's application. He even gave the tribe a copy of a draft decision that would have spelled defeat for the casino.

Instead he asked the tribe and casino opponents to submit more information before coming up with a new answer. Final responses were accepted October 30 -- a BIA spokesperson was checking on updates in the process on Wednesday afternoon.

"The irony is overwhelming. Our history is Our history," Cromwell said in a message to tribal citizens last week. "Yet, we have to continue to prove it over and over again all in an effort to maintain our ancestral land."

In that message, Cromwell confirmed that the tribe has been dealing with budget cuts. Council members have taken a voluntary reduction in salaries, he said, and some contracts with "outside consultants" have ended at this time.

He also warned that some employees might need to be let go as the tribe faces an uncertain future without a concrete money-making enterprise like a casino. The tribe has taken on at least $347 million in debt, according to the Malaysian company that has been financing the project.

Federal Court Decision:
District Court of Massachusetts: Littlefield v. Department of the Interior (July 28, 2016)

Supreme Court Decision in Carcieri v. Salazar:
Syllabus | Opinion [Thomas] | Concurrence [Breyer] | Dissent [Stevens] | Concurrence/Dissent [Souter]

Department of the Interior Solicitor Opinion:
M-37029: The Meaning of "Under Federal Jurisdiction" for Purposes of the Indian Reorganization Act (March 12, 2014)

Join the Conversation

Related Stories
Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe remains confident as Trump team reviews casino bid (August 15, 2017)
Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe urged to consider all options for stalled casino (July 20, 2017)
Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe reportedly owes $347 million to casino firm (July 7, 2017)
Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe gets another shot at casino land-into-trust (July 6, 2017)
Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe shifts course on casino land-into-trust bid (June 28, 2017)
Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe remains confident of approval of casino (June 22, 2017)
Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe still waits on casino ruling from Trump team (June 20, 2017)
Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe awaits casino ruling from Trump team (May 8, 2017)
Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe praises development in casino dispute (April 3, 2017)
Trump administration given more time for appeal in tribal gaming case (March 17, 2017)
Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe enters new year with casino in limbo (January 2, 2017)
Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe casino in limbo amid change in D.C. (December 14, 2016)
Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe files notice of appeal in casino lawsuit (December 9, 2016)
Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe casino faces unknowns with Donald Trump in office (November 10, 2016)
Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe sees hope in casino land litigation (October 14, 2016)