Tribal leaders at the Mashpee Wampanoag rally on Capitol Hill
Published November 15, 2018
WASHINGTON — “By doing this, you are coming after our kids. You are coming after our future generations,” Jessie Little Doe Baird, Vice Chairwoman of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, told the Trump Administration during an address on Capitol Hill where tribal leaders from across Indian Country gathered to oppose the dissolution of the Mashpee reservation. “They came for our children and took them to Carlisle because we were ‘too Indian.’ Today, they tell us we are not Indian enough,” said Vice Chairwoman Baird, referring to the Zinke-led Interior Department’s decision September 7, when it declined to assert its authority and reaffirm the status of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s reservation.
Mashpee Wampanoag Chairman Cedric Cromwell
Opponents of the Mashpee’s proposed First Light Casino and Resort in Taunton, Mass., filed suit against the Department of Interior in Littlefield v. US Department of the Interior, claiming that the Obama Administration overstepped its authority when it approved Mashpee’s land-into-trust application in 2015 that established the tribe’s reservation. Citing Carcieri v. Salazar (2009), in which the US Supreme Court held that the federal government could not take land into trust that was acquired by the Narragansett Tribe, the plaintiffs prevailed. In Littlefield, Judge William Young followed the Supreme Court in Carcieri, which ruled that the federal government could not take land into trust for tribes that were federally recognized after 1934, contending that the criteria “now under Federal jurisdiction” in the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) of 1934 referred only to tribes that were federally recognized when the act was passed. As the Mashpee did not receive federal recognition until 2007, Young ruled the tribe ineligible for land restoration provisions under the IRA.
Congressman Bill Keating, sponsor of HR5244
The Trump Administration subsequently refused to defend the standing of the Mashpee Wampanoag and its reservation in court. Secretary Zinke’s recently-confirmed Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs, Tara Sweeney, issued the September 7 decision in which she contended that Mashpee doesn’t meet the IRA “under federal jurisdiction” benchmark, and asserted “the record contains practically no evidence of any dealings with the federal government” at points during the tribe’s history, an interpretation that led Sweeney to conclude Mashpee could not be a full beneficiary of the federal-Indian trust responsibility. However, a review of the record reveals that the Wampanoag are one of the most documented tribes in history.
In a contradictory address at the NCAI’s 75th annual convention, Sweeney tried to mitigate her role in the potentially devastating blow to tribes throughout the US, stating that she “walked into this decision,” and then denied that the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) had been asked to submit an opinion. In fact, Acting BIA Director Darryl LaCounte testified July 24 before the House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs and was questioned about the Mashpee decision. When asked to recall a similar instance of a tribe having its reservation disestablished, La Counte responded, “My best guess would be in the 50s, when the termination era took place.” At the Mashpee solidarity rally on Capitol Hill, leaders from the Piikani Nation to the Ponca Tribe warned that removal of the Mashpee’s reservation would set the precedent for a new era of termination.
“We are a terminated tribe. We know how devastating it is to lose all of our land,” said Chairman Larry Wright, Jr. of the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska, which was among the last tribes to suffer termination and later receive restoration. “This administration wants to make us an ethnic statistic,” added Oglala Sioux President Troy Weston, “but we’re not going to let that happen.”
Mashpee Wampanoag’s charismatic chairman, Cedric Cromwell, has become the public face of this struggle to defend tribal sovereignty and uphold the federal-Indian trust responsibility. “The termination of Indian tribes has been reintroduced,” said Chairman Cromwell with the Capitol as a backdrop. “This struggle is about indigenous rights and fighting for our land and sovereignty – which is the blood and bones of our ancestors, which sanctified the land we stand on.”
Aaron Payment, Chairman of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians and Vice President of the National Congress of American Indians, said of the Trump Administration, “They are trying to get out of the trust and treaty relationship. This administration’s policy is termination. We are now in a termination era.” In a powerful oratory, Rain Bear Stands Last, representing Chief Stan Grier, President of the Blackfoot Confederacy Chiefs, emphasized one of the Trump Administration’s earliest policy objectives in Indian Country, to privatize tribal lands for extractive industry development, which he described as “termination by privatization.”
Congressman William Keating (D-MA), has sponsored HR5244, the House version of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act, which would preserve the tribe’s reservation and halt any future Trump Administration attempts at disestablishment. “We shouldn’t have to be doing this but we’re here because the administration has made a decision to go in one direction and Congress is here to try and straighten that up,” Rep. Keating told the crowd. “This is an existential issue, this is about the existence of this tribe, it’s that fundamental,” he emphasized.
Congressman Joe Kennedy III receives a “Make Indigenous Nations Great Again” cap from the Mashpee
Congressman Joe Kennedy III (D-MA), a co-sponsor of HR5244, assured the gathering, “We will pass this bill” as it has bipartisan support, and added, “We will never, never, allow this injustice to stand.”
“We have seen throughout American history the moments that we have fallen short from the ideals that we aspire to. The price that people here long before those first immigrants have paid. The opportunity the United States government has now – not to right those wrongs, because they can never fully be righted – but to allow for some small piece of justice to be had. To make good on a recognition shouldn’t be too difficult for the world’s greatest democracy. The people who welcomed the first immigrants to our shores are worthy of that recognition,” implored Rep. Kennedy.
In an impassioned speech, Mashantucket Pequot Chairman, Rodney Butler, continued the “Thanksgiving” theme in the context of the Anglo-European conquest of Tribal Nations, and urged recognition for the magnitude of the losses suffered by tribes in the development of the United States. The Piikani delegation dubbed the holiday, “Thankstaking.”
“Nearly four-hundred years on from the foundation of the pervasive American myth of Thanksgiving, our Algonquian brothers and sisters whose ancestors kept the Pilgrims alive are about to be taken from again,” was Chief Grier’s message. “Today, we are all Mashpee Wampanoag,” imparted Grier, under whose leadership the Piikani Nation has regained a profile in North America it has not enjoyed since the 1850s.
“We’re calling upon all of Indian Country to call their Congresspeople to say, ‘We want this bill, HR5244, passed,’ because when they do this to one of us, they’re going to do it to all of us,” cautioned Chairman Cromwell.
Photos courtesy of Alter-Native Media.