Tribe applauds Justice Dept. for challenging court ruling

Printed from:

STATE HOUSE — The Obama administration on Wednesday challenged a federal court ruling that would strip the Mashpee Wampanoag of its tribal land in southeastern Massachusetts, according to the tribe, reigniting hope for the future of the tribe’s planned casino in Taunton.

Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Council Chairman Cedric Cromwell cheered the move by the U.S. Justice Department to file a motion to reconsider after U.S. District Court Judge William Young ruled in late July that only tribes federally recognized before 1934 can be eligible for reservation lands. The awarding of land in-trust for the Mashpee Wampanoag was remanded back to the U.S. Department of Interior.

“We’ve been on our land for thousands of years and all we seek is the right to exist here as a sovereign people. It was promised to us soon after the first Pilgrims arrived and it’s a promise we hope the courts will honor,” Cromwell said.

The Justice Department is challenging Young’s ruling, which stems from a suit brought by a rival casino developer, based on whether the tribe was under federal jurisdiction.

According to the tribe, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals reached a different conclusion in a case involving the Cowlitz tribe in California. In that case, the appellate court handed down a decision a day after Young’s ruling finding that the Interior Department can hold land in trust for a tribe that was under federal jurisdiction before 1934 even if “federal recognition” didn’t come until years later.

“It’s reassuring because we have always argued that our Land-In-Trust application qualifies under ‘federal jurisdiction’ as well as the fact that our people were indeed residing on a reservation before 1934,” Cromwell said.

After receiving the land in trust from the Interior Department last September, the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe broke ground on the planned $1 billion First Light Resort and Casino in Taunton. The Massachusetts Gaming Commission subsequently denied a regional gaming license to private developers who hoped to build a resort casino in nearby Brockton.

Some in southeastern Massachusetts have worried that the region would fall behind two others in the race to erect casinos under a 2011 state law. The commission has granted commercial casino licenses to developers that are building casinos in Everett and Springfield. A facility authorized under the 2011 law, but limited to slot machines, has opened in Plainville.

Since Young’s ruling, the tribe said work at its casino site has involved filling excavated trenches, taking steps to avoid soil erosion, dust control and securing equipment and materials, including 2,000 tons of steel worth $8.2 million. The tribe has also said work in East Taunton to upgrade water delivery systems and make infrastructure improvements outside the reservation will continue in compliance with their agreements and permits with the city.

That work is scheduled to be completed by the end of August.

— Written by Matt Murphy

Copyright State House News Service