Mashpee Wampanoag tribe hails Interior ruling as another step toward Taunton casino

for Metro - 27wampanoag - Rendering from the Mashpee Wampanoag for the proposed Taunton casino. (Handout)
A rendering of the proposed Mashpee Wampanoag casino in Taunton — Proponents sayin it would be a boon to the economy.Credit: (Handout photo)

The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe says it has received a preliminary opinion from the Interior Department that moves the tribe a step closer to building a casino in Taunton.

The department, in what the tribe called a “preliminary advisory opinion,” found that the Mashpee lands in Taunton qualify as an “initial reservation.” That status would mean that the tribe would be able to conduct gaming there under the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, the tribe said.

Cedric Cromwell, chairman of the tribe, said the opinion was “another huge step forward toward the development of a first class destination resort casino in Taunton. We look forward to creating thousands of jobs and widespread economic opportunities for our Tribe, the people of Taunton and the entire Southeastern Massachusetts region.”

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Tribal casinos are approved under federal law and do not need state licenses. The challenge for the Mashpee has been a federal law stipulating that tribal gambling can only take place on sovereign Indian land, and the Mashpee have none, the Globe reported last month.

Tribes can buy land like any other group, but they must persuade the Interior Department to take the land into federal trust to make the land eligible for a casino.

The determination that the Mashpee Wampanoag reservation could host a gaming facility as an “initial reservation” — the first reservation of a tribe after acknowledgment by the government — was conditioned by federal officials on final approval of the tribe’s request for the government to take the land in trust and proclaim it as a reservation.

The tribe’s application continues to be reviewed at the department’s eastern regional office, Kevin K. Washburn, assistant secretary for Indian affairs, said in a letter to Cromwell that was released by the tribe.

A key hurdle remains for the Wampanoags and other tribes: A 2009 US Supreme Court ruling that the department can only take land into trust for tribes that were “under federal jurisdiction” when Congress enacted the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act. The Mashpee were not formally recognized by the federal government until 2007.

The tribe, which was recognized in 2007, is trying to satisfy the Supreme Court requirement by submitting documentation to demonstrate a long connection to the federal government. They will argue the relationship is tantamount to formal recognition, the Globe reported.

The state’s 2011 gambling law opened commercial bidding for casino licenses in Greater Boston and Western Massachusetts, but delayed commercial casino development in Southeastern Massachusetts to give the Mashpee time to make progress on a tribal casino.

The state gambling commission, which controls commercial casino licenses, has been waiting for signs of progress from the tribe. The commission has the authority to open Southeastern Massachusetts to commercial casino bidders if the commission concludes the tribe will be unable to get a reservation.

Taunton Mayor Thomas C. Hoye, Jr., a casino backer, said the Interior Department’s action was expected, but welcome just the same.

“It’s another step in the right direction,’’ he said in a telephone interview. “We look forward to the opportunity to create jobs in this region. That’s what this project is all about, an economic opportunity for the City of Taunton and Southeastern Massachusetts.’’

Hoye said the complex issue of federal approvals may be resolved by this summer.

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