About 400 years ago, a man named Tisquantum was kidnapped by an English explorer and taken to Spain as a slave. Miraculously, Tisquantum escaped and returned to the “New World” and to the coastal village where he once lived. In the years he was gone, his entire family died of disease.
A short time later, struggling, desperate English settlers arrived on the shores where his tribe, the Wampanoag, still lived. Tisquantum was key to their survival. Because of his time in Europe, he could speak English. He helped the settlers plant corn and survive winter, and he brokered a peace agreement, without which their colony ― and, by extension, the United States ― would have never existed. The first treaty and the first land grant to the white settlers in North America were translated by this man.
Few people who celebrate Thanksgiving know Squanto’s full name or the name of his tribe. But without Tisquantum or the Wampanoag, the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock surely would have died.
And on this Thanksgiving, the United States government is in the process of terminating the reservation of the tribe that welcomed the Pilgrims.
On Sept. 7, Cedric Cromwell, the chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe received a letter from Tara Sweeney, the assistant secretary of Indian affairs at the Department of the Interior, informing him that his tribe no longer fit the legal definition of “Indian” and would be losing its reservation status. This is the first time that land held under special status for tribes has been taken out of trust since Harry Truman’s presidency.
“The same country that we helped form is now turned against us,” Cromwell told HuffPost this week. “It’s quite frightening that our own country is attacking us during the holiday that we helped establish.”
The legal battle over the Mashpee reservation started in 2016, when casino developer Neil Bluhm wanted to open a casino in a part of Massachusetts set aside for tribal gaming only. He financially backed a small group of residents from the city of Taunton, where the tribe planned to open a casino, to sue the Department of Interior, demanding the agency revoke the reservation’s trust status. In July 2016, the Taunton residents won.
But the wording of the court’s ruling kicked the decision back to the DOI, which could have legally affirmed the Mashpee’s trust status and saved its reservation. In September the administration declined to do that.
“Because the Tribe was not ‘under federal jurisdiction’ in 1934, the Tribe does not qualify under the [Indian Reorganization Act’s] first definition of ‘Indian,’” Sweeney wrote in her letter.
The sprawling 1934 Indian Reorganization Act gave the DOI the ability to take land into trust for tribes. Before 1934, tribes lost 90 million acres to allotment. Since then, tribes have been buying back stolen land within their treaty territories. But tribal ownership of a piece of land does not make it Indian Country. For the tribe to be able to exercise jurisdiction, practice self-governance or operate a casino there, the DOI has to put that land into trust.
For decades, the DOI put land into trust without hesitation and restored 9 million acres of lost tribal land. With the advent of Indian gaming in the 1990s, this long-established practice suddenly became controversial. Powerful gaming interests started fighting new trust lands to shut out tribes and corner the casino market.
In 1993, Trump, then a New York real estate mogul deeply invested in Atlantic City casinos, testified before Congress that the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act was unfair and hurting his business. “They don’t look like Indians to me,” he said.
“The same country that we helped form is now turned against us.”
Now he and his administration are still arguing that contemporary tribes are not Indian enough for treaty rights and federal statutes to apply. Under the Obama administration, over 500,000 acres of land were taken into trust. Under Trump, the slow restoration of tribal lands has come to a dead stop. According to the DOI’s legal arguments, if the Mashpee Wampanoag are not Indian enough to have trust land, 128 of the 573 federally recognized tribes in the United States could lose their reservations as well.
With the Mashpee decision, the country is moving backward.
After exhausting his options with the judicial and executive branches, Cromwell is taking his fight to the legislative branch. “Congress has the ultimate plenary authority to protect tribes,” he said. “Based on how we protected the early settlers and helped create this country.”
The two lawmakers who represent the tribe, Reps. Bill Keating and Joe Kennedy III (both D-Mass.), have co-authored legislation to cement federal recognition of the Mashpee Wampanoag land. The text of the Mashpee Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act is shorter than this article and straightforwardly states that all laws with “general applicability to Indians” apply to the Mashpee. In short, they would still be Indians. The bill has 21 co-sponsors from both parties and is the tribe’s final hope to maintain a small piece of the land it so generously shared 397 years ago.
On the Mashpee Wampanoag reservation lie its tribal offices, a future housing development, a casino still under construction, a language immersion school, community gardens and its burial grounds. The traditional homeland of the Wampanoag confederacy ― the tribe the Pilgrims first encountered ― is roughly a third of present-day Massachusetts. Today the tribe is fighting to hold on to 316 acres, an area roughly the size of the National Mall.