Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal leaders are applauding today’s decision by the U.S. Justice Department’s to push for reconsideration of a historic court decision that threatens to take away their recently designated Indian reservation.
“We applaud the Justice Department’s decision. We’ve been on our land for thousands of years and all we seek is the right to exist here as a sovereign people. It was promised to us soon after the first Pilgrims arrived and it’s a promise we hope the courts will honor,” said Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Council Chairman Cedric Cromwell.
A lawsuit financed by Chicago-based casino developer, Neil Bluhm, earlier this year challenged the authority of the U.S. Department of Interior to classify tribal lands as a reservation for any tribe who was granted federal recognition after the Indian Re-Organization Act (IRA) of 1934. The lawsuit was filed on the heels of a U.S. Interior Department decision last September to designate 150 acres of land in Taunton and 170 acres of land in Mashpee as an Indian reservation.
On July 28, 2016, Federal District Court Judge William Young ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, citing a 2009 Supreme Court decision that limited the Interior Department’s authority to hold Land-In-Trust on behalf of tribes federally recognized after 1934.
Judge Young remanded the case back to the Department of Interior because, in his view, the Tribe could not have been under “federal jurisdiction” in 1934 because it was not “federally recognized” at that time.
The “motion to reconsider” filed by the Justice Department challenges the judge’s decision insofar as it addressed whether the Tribe was under federal jurisdiction. It does not challenge the Judge’s construction of the second category of eligibility for acquiring land. The motion seeks to clarify why the judge ruled on an aspect of the IRA that was not part of the Interior Department Record-Of-Decision, and why the judge’s ruling equated “federal jurisdiction” with “federal recognition.”
The motion also comes after a higher court — the District of Columbia (DC) Court of Appeals — reached a much different conclusion in a case involving the Cowlitz tribe in California.
In that case, the court ruled that there is indeed a distinction between “federal recognition” and “federal jurisdiction.” The appellate court decision, which was handed down the day after Judge Young’s ruling, upheld the Interior Department’s authority to hold Land-In-Trust on behalf of tribes who can show they were under “federal jurisdiction” before 1934 — even if they weren’t “federally recognized” until years later.
“We respectfully but strongly disagree with Judge Young’s ruling. We are encouraged that the appellate justices affirmed the Interior Department’s interpretation of the law. There is indeed a very clear distinction between ‘federal jurisdiction’ and formal ‘federal recognition’ — a process that didn’t even exist at the time IRA was passed by Congress,” Chairman Cedric Cromwell said.
“It’s re-assuring because we have always argued that our Land-In-Trust application qualifies under ‘federal jurisdiction’ as well as the fact that our people were indeed residing on a reservation before 1934,” Cromwell said.
As the case moves forward, Mashpee tribal leaders look to play a more direct role in defending the status of their ancestral homelands as tribal attorneys last week filed a motion to intervene.
“Nobody can explain the importance of our ancestral homeland and its significance to our survival better than we can. While those who are financing this suit are principally interested in protecting their casino interests, our goal is to protect the sovereignty of our people. We look forward to working together with federal officials in our long struggle for justice,” Chairman Cromwell said.
About the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe:
The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, known as the People of the First Light, has inhabited present day Massachusetts for more than 12,000 years. After an arduous process lasting more than three decades, the Mashpee Wampanoag were re-acknowledged as a federally recognized tribe in 2007 and retain full tribal sovereignty rights. The Mashpee tribe currently has approximately 2,600 enrolled citizens.