Tribe Cautiously Optimistic on the Heels of a Pending Land Decision


The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe is currently waiting on a decision from the United States Department of Interior on its petition to continue to hold the Tribe’s ancestral homelands in trust. A decision by the Department of Interior is expected to come down sometime in February.  While the Tribe remains cautiously optimistic, a year into the Trump Administration has given the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe plenty to worry about…with concerns that the Trump Administration’s position towards certain groups will overshadow the strength and merit of the thousands of pages of documents submitted over the past 40 years.

Native Americans across Indian Country are growing increasingly concerned about the Trump Administration and it’s policies toward Native Americans. From questionable comments about people of color to several recent proclamations and the opening of tribal lands to mining and drilling that have shown a distributing trend in how the Trump Administration views Native American communities, culture and heritage.

Recently, the Trump administration issued two proclamations to remove protections from more than 2 million acres of National Monuments in Utah – the largest elimination protected lands in U.S. History.

It’s now clear these moves are not just an attack on the beautiful landscape and treasured public lands that are largely revered by Americans at large, though it is. The administration’s assault on tribal lands is in line with many of its other moves, which is to say it’s an attack on anything that does not fit the mold of this administrations base of supporters, in this case it’s Native Americans, their beliefs and sacred lands.

These proclamations, which are legally fraught and an unusual use of presidential power, also continue another trend within this Administration of rewarding big business.  The opening of the National Monuments, which were managed by a coalition of area tribes, will likely allow for mining and drilling to return to these lands.

These moves are inline with many of the stances the Trump Administration has taken when dealing with the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s land-in-trust.

In April, 2017 shortly after the Trump Administration took office it withdrew its appeal of a ruling in 2016 by a U.S. District Court Judge that rejected the Federal Government’s authority to take land-into-trust under category 2. (There are 3 separate categories that allow the Federal Government to take land-into-trust on behalf of a federally recognized tribe.) The administration’s decision to no longer support it’s decision to hold land-in-trust under category 2 was a dramatic shift and unprecedented. Native American Tribe’s are almost always challenged by big business when it comes to their ability to exercise their sovereign right on land and the Department of Justice has always been there to support the tribe’s rights.

The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe was met with opposition that were funded and supported by competing casino operators. It was an expected move that the Tribe and the previous Administration were prepared to challenge. The move to withdraw the challenge against big business by the Trump administration was unexpected.

The Department of Interior’s decision to also circulate a draft decision that the Tribe does not qualify under category 1 is another cause for concern. This administration’s understanding of the category meaning is in stark contrast to those of the Bush Administration, which provided the Tribe with federal recognition, and the Obama Administration, which continued to move the Tribe forward with land in trust.

 So, as the Tribe looks forward to the pending decision there is certainly plenty of reason for concern. Right now the Tribe sees several possible outcomes in February: The Department of Interior could agree with the Tribe that it has and always has been a Tribe and maintains it’s right to land; or the Department of Interior could disagree with the Tribe; or it could delay its decision or ask for additional documents.

Any decision by the Department of Interior that does not support the Tribe’s land-in-trust petition will be appealed. The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe and Tribal Council are committed to forever protecting the Tribe’s land, culture and heritage. The Tribe’s confident that it’s on the right side of history and will not rest until it is recognized.