For Mashpee Wampanoag, land rights, casino back on the table
Keating says fate of native social programs tied to bill becoming law
A WEEK AFTER a tweet by President Trump derailed efforts by the Mashpee Wampanoag to build a $1 billion casino in Taunton, the US House of Representatives has revived the tribe’s gaming prospects.
Last Wednesday, after Trump tweeted that Republicans should not support a bill to protect the tribe’s land trust designation in Taunton, House Democrats pulled the measure from the floor. It had been slated for “fast track” consideration, a process that requires a two-thirds vote.
But Democrats, led by US Rep. William Keating, who represents Mashpee, then put the bill on the regular calendar of the House, where it was taken up this afternoon and passed, 275-146.
“Without support from Congress it will be impossible for the Mashpee Wampanoag to engage in any type of true self government because they won’t own their own land,” Keating said on the House floor. “No economic development, no tribal headquarters, no elder housing, no pre-k programs. It means being treated as secondhand tribe with no future.”
Having the 321-acre site in Taunton in federal trust gives the tribe wide latitude over use of the land, including the potential to build a casino under federal Indian gaming rights. Rep. Joe Kennedy III is also a cosponsor of the bill.
The Taunton land was originally granted trust status in 2015 by the Obama administration’s Department of Interior. For the first time ever, such a declaration was reversed in 2018 by the same agency, now under a new administration.
In its reversal last year, the Interior Department cited a 2016 US District Court judge ruling that the Obama Interior Department had overstepped its authority taking the land into a trust for a tribe that did not have federal recognition when the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act was enacted. The Mashpee Wampanoag first won federal recognition as a tribe in 2007, after a 32-year legal struggle.
Last year’s move by the Interior Department prompted Keating’s bill, which would reverse the Trump administration decision.
Trump’s tweet called the measure “a special interest casino bill,“ but Keating turned the charge around and said it’s the president who is doing the bidding of special interests.
“You’re seeing all these financial and political connections to the president,” Keating said in an interview on Tuesday night.
Matt Schlapp, a presidential adviser and the husband of Trump’s director of strategic communications, is a lobbyist for Twin River Management Group, which owns the Twin River and Tiverton casinos in Rhode Island. A Taunton casino would compete directly with the nearby Rhode Island casinos. Schlapp slammed Keating’s bill in his own tweet last week just minutes before Trump.
This is not the first federal bill involving Native American land trusts. Previous legislation signed by Obama in 2014 and by Trump in 2017 preserved land trust rights for Indian tribes.
“There’s no difference in substance,” he said. “The entire Massachusetts delegation and Republicans are in support of this. These bills usually pass without great controversy.”
“The real conflict here is between private gaming interests that don’t want Native American competition,” said Rep. Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican and cosponsor of the Mashpee Wampanoag bill, weeks before the vote.The Mashpee Wampanoag have previously said that the tribe has a cultural and moral claim to the land, which lies not far from where the Wampanoag greeted the Pilgrims and later joined them in the first Thanksgiving.
The White House replied to request for comment on the bill by referring to the president’s May 8 tweet.