Congratulations to the Mashpee Wampanoag

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Heartfelt congratulations to the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe of Cape Cod, Mass. We’ve known all along that they belong to one of the most historic Indian nations on the continent, the first to welcome the English Pilgrims and the first to lead a large-scale pan-tribal resistance against their encroachments. Now the federal government is preparing to acknowledge their existence.

After 10 tries, Washington’s current Indian agents finally got it right. Of course, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe of Cape Cod had such a strong case it would have been a major scandal if their petition for recognition did not succeed, but that thought hasn’t stopped the Interior Department in recent years. No tribe is immune to the bureaucratic trick of setting impossible standards of evidence.

Prior petitioners, notably the Nipmuc Nation, the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation and the Eastern Pequots, have fallen prey to bad-faith demands for year-to-year and practically day-by-day proof of their ”continuous existence.” Even the Mashpee
Wampanoag lost a celebrated federal trial back in 1976 when a high-powered corporate
law firm managed to convince a non-Indian jury to throw out a land claim
affecting their own property on the grounds that the tribe could not demonstrate its
existence on certain set dates.

As Assistant Interior Secretary of Indian Affairs in the Clinton administration, Kevin Gover was prepared to accept some common-sense evidence for continuous existence, in spite of gaps in the documents. Say, for instance, the tribe was continuously recognized by the state government and, before that, the colonial government.

Or, say that its members continuously occupied a state reservation. These factors helped win positive findings for the Nipmucs, Schaghticokes and Eastern Pequots until fierce opposition from local politicians and well-connected law firms intimidated Interior officials into reversing themselves.

The balance might have tipped for the Mashpee Wampanoag because of a historic oddity. In addition to their tribal organization, they also until recently had political control of the state-incorporated town of Mashpee. The settlement originated in 1665 as a Massachusetts ”praying town.”

It grouped together several villages of the Cape Cod Indians who had greeted Pilgrims from the Mayflower. A minister stayed with them to supervise their conversion. After King Philip’s War in 1676, which passed by the settlement, scattered remnants from other bands came to join them. Native inhabitants managed to control the town council and other municipal institutions right up to 1970.

It was the influx of non-Native residents, maybe spurred by the publicity given the Kennedy compound up the road at Hyannisport, that prompted the Mashpee Wampanoag to start petitioning for federal acknowledgement. They began the process, in fact, even before there was a process. Their petition, No. 15, began with a letter to the Interior Department in 1975; the current acknowledgment regulations were first drafted in 1978.

In 1976 the tribe tried, but failed, to get the federal government to support a land-claim suit designed to stop
encroachment by real estate developers. Tribal members also fought hard to
preserve their shell-fishing rights along the coast. The arrest of Tribal Chairman Glenn Marshall in his fishing boat produced an important court ruling supporting tribal sovereignty. Like so many other tribal petitions, these efforts began long before anyone even dreamed of tribal casinos.

Things being what they are, however, even with this background, the first thought that recognition brings to the mainstream press is gaming. The Wampanoag had to seek a financial supporter for the cost of the recognition process, so eventually a casino is bound to be an issue. (The process still has to run through a year of comment and counter-comment before Interior issues a final determination.) There are no tribal casinos at present in Massachusetts to compete with the lure of Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun to the south.

The state’s only federally recognized tribe, the Aquinnah Wampanoag, don’t want gaming on their island homeland and have been waiting to see how state policy develops to seek a casino on the mainland. Just days after the Mashpee decision, the state
Legislature, still quaintly called the Great and General Court, proceeded to make a
mess of the state’s non-Indian gambling industry.

In the middle of a debate over adding slot machines at the state’s four racetracks, legislative leaders neglected to extend their simulcasting authorization. Since April 1, the tracks have ”gone dark,” losing the off-track betting that is their financial mainstay, throwing hundreds out of work and threatening the existence of thoroughbred racing in the state.

We don’t know if it’s a case of intense back-room maneuvering or simple legislative incompetence, but it indicates that the tribes will have a very tricky path ahead to secure their own gaming development.

But these are worries for the years to come. For the moment the Mashpee Wampanoag have won a great victory, both in their three-decade legal campaign and their four-century struggle for survival. We join their celebration.

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This article first appeared as an editorial at Indian Country Today