The U.S. Interior Department is rescinding the reservation status of a Native American tribe whose plan to build a casino on its Massachusetts land was attacked by President Donald Trump last year.
The planned gaming operation would have competed for business with nearby Rhode Island casinos with strong ties to Trump, who once owned, then bankrupted, casinos in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
The federal Bureau of Indian Affairs informed the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe on Friday that its 321-acre Cape Cod reservation will be “disestablished” and its land taken out of federal trust, according to Tribal Chairman Cedric Cromwell. Land in trust to the federal government effectively grants a tribe special legal status and autonomy. The Mashpee Wampanoag, however, will still be officially recognized by the federal government as a Native American tribe, according to a spokesman for the Interior Department.
Tribal members are believed to be descendants of the first Native Americans to encounter the Pilgrims nearly four centuries ago. They call themselves the “People of the First Light.”
The Bureau of Indian Affairs “informed me that the Secretary of the Interior has ordered that our reservation be disestablished and that our land be taken out of trust,” Cromwell said in a statement Friday. The crushing news came as the tribe “desperately” struggled with the “devastating pandemic” as the nation tallied a record 100,000 cases of COVID-19.
The action was “cruel and unnecessary,” he added. It’s unclear what the next step will be.
Cromwell told the Cape Cod Times that he thought he was being contacted by the Trump administration to see if the tribe needed anything during the pandemic. Instead, “it was like a punch in the nose from a bully,” he said. Cromwell said it’s the first time such an action has been taken against a tribe.
Rep. Bill Keating (D-Mass.), who represents the district including the tribal land, called the action “one of the most cruel and nonsensical acts I have seen since coming to Congress.” Interior Secretary David Bernhardt “should be ashamed,” Keating said in a statement. “In a time of national health and economic emergency, the secretary of the Interior should be reaching out to help all Native American tribes,” he added.
The tribe has been locked in a court battle with nearby residents opposed to its casino plan over definitions of what constitutes a tribe under the 1934 federal Indian Reorganization Act. The tribe lost an important decision last month when the U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston upheld a lower court ruling that the federal government had not been authorized to take the tribal land into trust in 2015.
A separate federal court case concerning the reservation is still pending, according to Cromwell. The move against the reservation was not mandated by the courts, he said.
Interior Department spokesman Conner Swanson insisted to Boston’s NPR station WBUR that the court decision last month required the department’s action against the reservation.
Trump last year attacked the proposed federal Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act, which sought to protect members’ “tribal homeland.” Trump blasted it as a “special interest casino bill” and used the name of a Native American hero as a slur against bill supporter Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), slamming her yet again as “Pocahontas.”
The bill was later passed by the House, but failed to get through the Senate.
The tribe’s proposed casino would have been competition for two casinos in Rhode Island owned by Twin River Worldwide Holdings, whose president, George Papanier, was once a finance executive at the Trump Plaza casino hotel in Atlantic City, The Washington Post reported.
Matt Schlapp, chairman of the Conservative Political Action Committee, is a lobbyist for Twin River casinos, Keating noted. His wife, Mercedes Schlapp, is the White House strategic communications director.
Trump attacked Native American casinos in the past as unfair competition when his operations in Atlantic City were still functioning, at one point calling them the “biggest scandal ever.”
He insisted at a congressional hearing in 1993 that tribal owners “don’t look like Indians to me” and claimed: “I might have more Indian blood than a lot of the so-called Indians that are trying to open up the reservations” to gambling. (Check out the video up top.)
Cromwell vowed to fight on.
“We have survived, we will continue to survive. These are our lands, these are the lands of our ancestors, and these will be the lands of our grandchildren,” he stated. “This Administration has come and it will go. But we will be here, always.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article said Cromwell issued a statement Saturday. It was from Friday.