Massachusetts Tribe Regains Federal Approval for Land Where $1 Billion Casino Proposed

A Massachusetts tribe that has been fighting for its federal land rights for years to build a $1 billion casino resort has finally been dealt the hand it has sought so long.

This week, the Department of the Interior’s (DOI) Bureau of Indian Affairs closed the books on a legal lawsuit that has dragged on for three presidential administrations. The final ruling is that the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe has ancestral ties to the area where it purchased 321 acres more than ten years ago. Therefore, it possesses the right to take that land into federal trust.

The DOI concluded that the tribal property in Mashpee and Taunton rightfully deserved to be held in trust by the United States. The designation clears the way for the Native Tribe to build a Class II casino.

Native Americans can run such bingo-based gaming on their tribal land held in the trust. However, for Class III gaming, slot machines, and table games, the Tribe must get into a gaming agreement with the state.

The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe is one of the only two federally recognized tribes in Massachusetts. The other one is the Wampanoag Tribe Gay Head on Martha’s Vineyard. 

The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head was the westernmost of at least five sachemships that once existed on the Noepe Island, the contemporary Wampanoag name for Martha’s Vineyard. The Aquinnah Wampanoag have endured time and circumstance. The Tribe is the only federally recognized Tribe with Massachusetts’s Commonwealth. 


Tale of Two Interiors

In 2015, under the Obama administration, the DOI took the Wampanoag Tribe’s 321 acres into federal trust. The Tribe unveiled plans for a $1 billion integrated casino resort development on 151 acres in Taunton dubbed the First Light Resort and Casino. The project is supported by Malaysia-based gaming and hospitality conglomerate Genting Group.

However, local opposition stalled the enormous undertaking. Afterward, in March 2020, the DOI under the Trump administration informed the Mashpee that it was reversing its 2015 decision and removing the 321 acres from the federal trust.

In 2020, the DOI said the land should not be accepted into the trust since the Mashpee Tribe was not federally recognized when the Indian Reorganization Act was passed in 1934.

Politics were somewhat credited for the 2020 Interior move. At the time, Trump was engaged in a harsh dispute with Massachusetts US Senator Elizabeth Warren (D), who the president referred to as “Pocahontas.”

Warren and other Massachusetts’ congressional delegation members introduced and supported legislation in DC that would establish the Mashpee land as sovereign, no matter where the DOI stood. 

This week’s DOI verdict under the Biden administration backs the 2015 Interior opinion. Assistant secretary for the Bureau of Indiana Affairs, Bryan Newland, says this ruling is final.

In a 55-page conclusion, Newland wrote, “I find that statutory authority for acquiring the parcels exists under the Indian Reorganization Act. The 2015 decision to acquire such parcels in trust first made by then-Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn should be affirmed.”


Tribe Celebrates Outcome

Newland’s letter, directed to Mashpee Wampanoag chair Brian Weeden, “confirms the 2015 decision to acquire the Parcels in trust as the Tribe’s reservation.” The Indian Affairs assistant secretary stated his conclusion was based on numerous documents in the Tribe’s record and extensive historical sources, contemporary archeological and academic sources.

Weeden says the DOI ruling assures the tribe prosperity for generations to come.

“This is a momentous day for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe. He affirmed.” “While the injustices inflicted upon us cannot be erased, we can look for the future, a future of freedom, a feature of prosperity, and a future of peace.”

Last Updated on by Ryan

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