Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey are pledging to fight the decision by President Donald Trump’s administration to “disestablish” the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe’s reservation.
“The Mashpee Wampanoag have a right to their ancestral homeland no matter what craven political games the Trump administration tries to play,” the two Massachusetts Democrats said in a joint statement Sunday, after the Department of Interior informed the tribe that their 321-acre reservation — split between Mashpee and Taunton — would be taken out of federal trust, effectively stripping the lands of the semi-sovereign status they received in 2015.
The move — which could force the Mashpee Wampanoag to shut down certain services, subject residents to government taxes, and further delay a $1 billion casino project in Taunton — amounts to the first time the federal government has removed a tribe’s land trust status against its will since the infamous Termination Era of the mid-20th century.
“Disestablishment of the Mashpee Wampanoag reservation would re-open a shameful and painful chapter of American history of systematically ripping apart tribal lands and breaking the federal government’s word,” Warren and Markey said. “We will not allow the Mashpee Wampanoag to lose their homeland.”
Trump administration officials said that the move was mandated by two court decisions that ruled the tribe did not qualify to have their land taken into trust because they weren’t federally recognized in 1934, when the government first established the process to restore sovereign land rights (after a three-decade-long fight, the Mashpee Wampanoag were federally recognized in 2007).
Alluding to fears that the move could threaten the status of other newly established reservations, Warren and Markey said they “will fight this cruel injustice that promises to have ripple effects across Indian Country.”
Cedric Cromwell, the chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag, also argued over the weekend that the Department of Interior was not under any order to remove their lands from federal trust, citing a separate unresolved legal case involving the status of the reservation.
The tribe has also pushed for legislation — supported by the entire Massachusetts delegation — in Congress to affirm their reservation as trust land. However, after passing in the House, the bill stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate amid opposition from Trump. The Republican president’s top communications aide at the time is married to a lobbyist for Twin River, the operator of Rhode Island’s two casinos, which have opposed the tribe’s reservation status due to concerns about competition from the proposed Taunton casino. Rep. Bill Keating, the bill’s primary sponsor, has accused Trump of trying to “assist his lobbyist and special interest friends.” The lobbyist, Matthew Schlapp, has denied his wife played a role in his advocacy.
“In a time of national health and economic emergency, the Secretary of the Interior should be reaching out to help all Native American tribes,” Keating said.