Cedric Cromwell serves as chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe of Massachusetts. Photo: Facebook

Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe celebrates land-into-trust decision

In a historic decision, the Bureau of Indian Affairs has approved a land-into-trust application for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe.

Eight years and one month following the submission of the application in August 2007, Chairman Cedric Cromwell received a phone call this afternoon alerting him of the good news. He immediately called a meeting at tribal headquarters in Mashpee.

"The time we have all been waiting for is here," Cromwell said in a post on the tribe's website.

The application covers 170 acres in Mashpee. The property includes the tribe's new governmental center, which opened in March 2014, along with historic and cultural sites.

The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe celebrated the opening of its new government center in Mashpee, Massachusetts, in March 2014. Photo from MWT

It also includes 151 acres in the city of Taunton, where tribe will build a $500 million gaming facility to be called the First Light Resort and Casino -- Wampanoag means People of the First Light. The BIA's decision means construction can finally begin on the long-awaited development.

"This road to establish sovereign territory in Mashpee and Taunton has been a long one," Cromwell said. "But we now have a decision."

After submitting the application in August 2007, Wampanoag leaders were hopeful for action within a couple of years. There were some hiccups -- the tribe changed partners and gaming sites twice before settling on Taunton -- but nothing to suggest anything out of the ordinary.

But the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Carcieri v. Salazar injected significant uncertainty into the process. The February 2009 ruling states that the BIA can only place land in trust for tribes that were "under federal jurisdiction" as of 1934.

Mashpee Wampanoag royalty at the tribe's annual powwow in July 2015. Photo from Facebook

The Mashpee had just won formal acknowledgment of their status in May 2007 so there were serious doubts. But after a "thorough review," assistant Secretary Kevin Washburn, the head of the BIA, said the tribe overcame the hurdles.

"The tribe’s origins in southeastern Massachusetts predate the arrival of Europeans on this continent," Washburn said in a press release.

Washburn further noted that the land in Mashpee and Taunton will be considered the tribe's initial reservation under the terms of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. A reservation proclamation is forthcoming.

Cromwell, though, downplayed the gaming aspect of the decision. The tribe has been fighting to restore its land base for centuries and went to federal court in the 1970s only to see a huge setback due to its lack of federal recognition.

An artist's rendering of proposed First Light Resort and Casino in Taunton, Massachusetts. Image from Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe

That changed in May 2007, when the BIA finalized the tribe's federal status after a lengthy review. Cromwell, who had served on the council since 2001, became chairman in 2009 and repeatedly expressed optimism about the land-into-trust application even when Washburn failed to issue a decision in "early 2013" as promised in December 2012 letter.

"While some outside the tribe will focus only on our quest to build a destination resort casino in Taunton in accordance with the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, for us this goes far beyond economic development," Cromwell said. "This is about controlling our own destiny and preserving our ancient culture."

Cromwell and other tribal leaders will be meeting in Mashpee tomorrow at 1pm to celebrate the decision.

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

Federal Register Notice:
Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Proposed Fee-to-Trust Transfer of Property and Subsequent Development of a Resort/Hotel and Ancillary Facilities in the City of Taunton, MA and Tribal Government Facilities in the Town of Mashpee, MA by the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe (September 5, 2014)

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