Tribe close to jackpot
Polite and soft-spoken, Cedric Cromwell probably doesn’t meet anyone’s stereotype of a high roller.
But there’s no doubt he’s a player now. Simply put, it’s been a great week to be the chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag, the Cape Cod-based native tribe poised to win its long-running battle to get into the gaming business.
“I’m not a gambling man, no pun intended,’’ Cromwell told me. “But I have a very good feeling about this.’’
Under the gaming legislation reached behind closed doors and unveiled to the public this week, the Wampanoag have a distinct inside track on one of the three casinos the state would license. The legislation gives the tribe - and only the tribe - one year to find a site in Southeastern Massachusetts, win local approval, and sign a compact with Governor Deval Patrick. For the first time, the door is wide open.
Cromwell, who’s 46, doesn’t couch his mission in terms of cold cash. On the contrary, he casts it as an opportunity to address the wrongs suffered by his people over the centuries. He points to statistics showing that only half his tribe’s youth complete high school, and that his members suffer from a high incidence of chronic diseases and other afflictions that he believes a large pile of money could help address.
“It’s tragic, what’s happened to my people,’’ he said.
The Mashpee Wampanoag fought for years to win federal recognition, always with the goal of a casino in sight. While they are centered on Cape Cod and eleswhere in Southeastern Massachusetts, they don’t have a reservation. They won federal recognition only in 1987. But under federal law, they have a strong claim to open a casino if they can secure a site. State officials have noted forthrightly that the tribe’s special treatment in the bill is due to the leverage gained through recognition.
When Cromwell was growing up in Boston, the Wampanoag were strangers in their native land. Yet he always had a strong sense of identity, fostered by the great-grandmother who helped raise him. When he graduated from Umana Technical High School in East Boston, he accepted his diploma in native tribal garb.
Cromwell became chairman of the tribe in 2009, after a hard-fought campaign. Since then he has organized a very 21st-century lobbying campaign, spearheaded by William Delahunt, a former US representative. After years of legislative powerlessness, the tribe has learned to play the Beacon Hill game.
Lots of obstacles remain, of course. There is the small matter of passing the bill. Also, in order to have a casino, the Mashpee have to figure out where they can locate it. Cromwell is cagey on the location issue, saying only that he has been engaged in “very interesting’’ conversations with various municipal officials and that he is optimistic.
Even if one quibbles with Cromwell’s rosy depiction of gaming as a social program that will offer jobs and expand opportunity, there’s not much question that the Bay State’s Native Americans - like those elsewhere - have been on the short end of history. It would be hard to argue that they are less deserving of a casino than some out-of-state conglomerate.
And in Cromwell’s view, this is nothing less than a fresh start for a tribe whose roots date back hundreds of years. The Wampanoag were plundered and forgotten, he said, their heritage all but lost. But recent years have seen a rebirth, and blackjack tables may represent an unlikely chance to thrive.
“I think we have a bright future, and casinos will be the engine of that future,’’ Cromwell said. “History is written by the victors, and we have a chance to be victors and rewrite our history.’’
Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org