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 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.”  

He added, “Just two weeks ago we passed a parallel Republican-led bill for a tribe in California without a single member objecting.”  

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 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 IslandA 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.  

Keating pointed to those bills in ripping Trump for jumping into the Taunton issue 

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.  

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Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

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.