Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) with citizens of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe in Mashpee, Massachusetts, on April 21, 2018. Photo: Sen. Warren

Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe faces local questions about homelands bill

The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe is seeing support in the nation's capital for a bill to protect its homelands but the situation is looking a little different back home in Massachusetts.

Leaders in the town of Mashpee are raising concerns about the measure, known as the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act. They claim it was introduced, first in the House as H.R.5244 in early March, without their knowledge or input. S.2628, a companion version, was introduced in the Senate a couple of weeks later.

"The lack of communication has been a disservice to the town of Mashpee," minutes from a March 26 meeting read.

Following that meeting, the town's board of selectmen held an executive session behind closed doors on April 17 to “discuss strategy,” The Cape Cod Times reported. Litigation over the tribe's land-into-trust application, which the bill was written to address, is of particular interest, the paper indicated.

The town doesn't appear ready to bring its own case at this time. Leaders instead unveiled a letter at their public meeting on Monday, seeking amendments to the bill that would address gaming, land claims and other issues.

"While we are disappointed not to have been advised in advance of the tribe's correspondence with our Congressional delegation relative to this proposed legislation, which we deem to have significant ramifications for the town, we agree that the passage of such legislation could yield benefits for both the town and tribe," the letter reads, The Mashpee Enterprise reported.

The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe hosted Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) on April 21, 2018. Photo: MWT

The bill has not yet advanced in either the House or the Senate. But H.R.5244 has picked up some additional co-sponsors in recent weeks, with all nine Democratic members of the delegation from Massachusetts now in support of it. Five Republicans from other states are also on board.

"Such bi-partisanship is proof of the urgency that our rightful place in history remains in tact and our land remains in trust," Chairman Cedric Cromwell said in his April 2018 column.

Tribes have increasingly turned to Congress to protect their homelands from litigation, administrative delays and other holdups, including opposition in local communities. One of the first bills of its kind was Gun Lake Trust Land Reaffirmation Act, which was signed into law in 2014 to reaffirm the status of lands placed in trust for the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians, also known as the Gun Lake Tribe.

The law directed the dismissal of a long-running lawsuit, filed by a local opponent, which challenged the status of those lands. In February, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the power of Congress to do just that with its decision in Patchak v. Zinke, a closely-watched case.

The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act includes language similar to the Gun Lake law -- it requires an ongoing lawsuit to be "promptly dismissed" from the federal court system.

Though H.R.5244 has not advanced in the legislative process, other tribes have seen success. Since the start of the 115th Congress, at least six tribal homelands bill have cleared the House, almost all of them with unanimous support from lawmakers.

In the Senate, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) are supporting S.2628. The chamber has been slow to pass tribal homelands bills when compared to the House.

Warren, who has promised to do more for Indian Country after she claimed to be "part" Native American, visited the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe's governmental center over the weekend to discuss another one of her priorities, the opioid crisis. Last week, she jointly announced introduction of the Comprehensive Addiction Resources Emergency Act, which would provide $800 million a year to tribes to help them address abuse, addiction and treatment in their communities.

“We as a tribal nation support her 100 percent,” Chairman Cromwell told The Cape Cod Times after her visit on April 21. “We need that kind of funding.”

The tribe's governmental center, located in Mashpee, is among the sites included in the land-into-trust application that is being challenged in federal court. Although the plaintiffs in the case, known as Littlefield v. Department of the Interior, are more worried about a casino in their city of Taunton, the sites in Mashpee are also in doubt as a result of the litigation.

Though the tribe's lands in both Mashpee and Taunton remain in trust at this point, a federal judge ordered the Bureau of Indian Affairs to take another look at the application. The Trump administration has yet to respond but was ready to reverse course last year, according to a draft decision prepared by Jim Cason, a top political official at the Department of the Interior.

Instead, Cason asked the tribe and the Littlefield parties for more information. It's still unclear when a decision might be released.

Read More on the Story:
Town Requests Amendment To Tribal Senate, House Legislation (The Mashpee Enterprise April 24, 2018)
Mashpee selectmen announce opposition to tribe land legislation (The Cape Cod Times April 23, 2018)
Native American Tribe Battles to Keep Land (Voice of America April 22, 2018)
Sen. Warren touts opioid bill at Cape forum (The Cape Cod Times April 22, 2018)
Senator Elizabeth Warren Visits Mashpee Wampanoag Health Service Unit (The Mashpee Enterprise April 21, 2018)

Patchak v. Zinke

U.S. Supreme Court Decision in Patchak v. Zinke:
Syllabus | Judgment [Thomas] | Concurrence [Breyer] | Concurrence [Ginsburg] | Concurrence [Sotomayor] | Dissent [Roberts] | Full Document: Patchak v. Zinke

More U.S. Supreme Court Documents:
Oral Argument Transcript | Docket Sheet No. 16-498 | Questions Presented

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