On March 27, 2020, a message from Mashpee Wampanoag Chairman Cedric D. Cromwell was posted onto the tribe’s official website regarding a directive by the United States government to disestablish their tribal land.
What does disestablishment actually mean for Mashpee Wampanoag? For one, the tribe’s land is in trust, meaning it has a similar legal standing to reservation land and allows for significant tribal autonomy over the land. Currently, land in trust is legally handled at a federal level, so disestablishment allows cities and states to interfere in what happens on that land. In 2018, the U.S. government’s legal justification for this attempted disestablishment was to call into question Mashpee’s status as native under the definition established by the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act.
“For more than a decade now, tribal leaders have urged Congress to amend the Indian Reorganization Act to include a so-called ‘Carcieri Fix,’’ Aquinnah Wampanoag and Oglala Lakota tribal member Womsikuk James told Liberation News, “…which would remove the language in the bill upon which the Supreme Court based its decision in the Carcieri case, and guarantee that all tribes can have land taken into trust, not just ones federally recognized before the cut-off date of 1934.” This ruling indicates the colonial arrogance of the U.S. government in its view that it has the right to define what qualifies a tribe or nation as indigenous.
Beyond that, Mashpee Wampanoag member Hartman Deetz alerted Liberation News that many tribal programs often rely on funding sources, such as the Tribal Historic Preservation Office, that rely on maintaining a trust status in order to operate. According to Deetz the Mashpee Wampanoag’s “language immersion preschool has been funded by grants that are dependent on providing services to ‘reservation populations,’” and those grants “pay for student tuition, teacher training and education.”
The news about the government’s decision to disestablish the Mashpee Wampanoag’s land came during a call in which Chairman Cromwell was expecting to hear an update on COVID-19 relief aid from the federal government. When he picked up the phone, he was instead alerted of the decision to take their land out of trust. This decision has the potential to extend far beyond Mashpee Wampanoag. The disestablishment of a trust for the first time in decades sets a precedent that could ripple into other tribal lands. James explained that “many politicians from both parties, as well as a fraction of tribal leaders, have long sought to weaken tribal sovereignty through the privatization of tribal lands… if the disestablishment of the Mashpee reservation is successful, they can proceed with the disestablishment of other reservations, especially those sitting on vast oil reserves, or possessing other valuable natural resources in abundance.”
James and his tribe have a direct reason to be concerned about this: “Like the Mashpee, who were federally recognized in 2007, my tribe, the Aquinnah Wampanoag, had not obtained recognition before the Indian Reorganization Act was passed. If the Trump administration succeeds in disestablishing the Mashpee reservation, the Aquinnah, as well as tribes like the Mohegan, Pequot and Narragansett, among many others, could be among the next tribes to find themselves fighting an uphill battle against the breaking-up of their reservations.” Deetz even estimates it could affect hundreds of tribes across the country.
When talking about disestablishment, it’s critical to remember the historical context that many tribes find themselves within. “The decision to disestablish the Mashpee tribe’s ‘reservation’ status is consistent with 400 years of colonial forced dispossession of our ancestral homelands,” Deetz continued, “there has been a bit of attention on the Mashpee tribe recently as we are moving into the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower…. How can we expect to find justice in the courts of the government that is part and parcel to the crimes of disinheriting us of our ancestral homeland?”
Deetz frustratedly questioned, before lamenting how “the crimes of slavery of our people, the destruction of our environment, our communities, the taking of children and the killing of our people in whole and in part [is] both caused and allowed? This is how you define genocide. This is a violation of our rights as defined by the federal government, but also as defined by the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People, of the UN Declaration of Human Rights.”
The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe has historically not backed down from similar unjust actions taken against them. In 1975, they were finally allowed to officially file for federal recognition. It was only once larger Casino investors put their money behind the process that the Department of the Interior began to consider their case. In 2007, they were recognized as a tribe, and in 2015 they were granted ‘Land in Trust’ jurisdiction. Now, the Trump administration has economic motivations in revoking these decisions.
“Trump currently has financial interest in the Twin Rivers casino located in Lincoln, Rhode Island,” Deetz tells us, “less than 20 miles from the proposed site of the Mashpee tribe’s casino in Taunton, Massachusetts. Trump’s press secretary and campaign workers have many overlapping ties with Twin Rivers executives and lobbyists.” Acknowledging the corruption of the U.S. government, James detailed a roadmap for change, reliant on the organized masses of people rather than the justice system, stating that they were “not especially optimistic that the administration will back down. The only way that such an outcome could occur is if there is mass, vocal opposition on the part of Native peoples and their allies.”
Deetz also pointed Liberation News to some existing programs that readers could provide material support to. The Native Land Conservancy focuses on acquiring and preserving culturally significant land for use by the Wampanoag people. The Wampanoag Language Reclamation Project is a tribal project that provides language services to multiple Wampanoag tribes, preserving language and culture for future generations. Maushop farm is a project to attain food sovereignty, and similar programs are housed within the Mashpee tribal council. While these are all important projects, Deetz concluded his remarks to Liberation News saying: “We must also find more ways to resist collectively individually, directly and creatively, to challenge the injustice in this continued assault of colonization.”
You can sign a petition to support the Mashpee Wampanoag’s struggle for their land here.