Tribe leaders: Move to take away more than 300 acres of ancestral land from Mashpee Wampanoags ‘painful’

Members of the Wampanoag tribe are fighting back against a plan to take away hundreds of acres of their land, a battle made even more draining amid a global pandemic.

BOSTON — After a years-long court battle, the Department of the Interior is moving to take away more than 300 acres of ancestral land from the Mashpee Wampanoags.

And the decision is coming at the height of the coronavirus epidemic.

“It’s painful right now. It’s very hurtful with the pandemic and then this crisis of being disestablished by our trustee, so this is the kind of termination acts against a federally recognized tribe in the modern era, post the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act,” said Mashpee Wampanoag Chairman Cedric Cromwell.

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Cromwell thought when the Bureau of Indian Affairs called him on March 27, it was about coordinating FEMA relief.

Instead, the tribe was notified by the Department of the Interior that it will be rescinding its reservation designation and removing the land from federal trust.

“It’s unheard of in the face of American policy that a sovereign would not have jurisdiction over their own land for their benefit and the prosperity of their people,” Cromwell said.

In a statement, the DOI says “The decision does not affect the federal recognition status of the Tribe, only Interior’s statutory authority to accept the land in trust. Rescission of the decision will return ownership of the property to the Tribe."

In this letter, Interior Secy David Bernhardt says they are complying with the U.S. Court of Appeals’ February decision.

The court upheld a lower court decision declaring the federal government had not been authorized to take land into trust for the tribe.

It’s a move opponents of a proposed casino on the Wampanoag’s land in Taunton called further vindication for them.

Congressman Joe Kennedy III is part of a bipartisan group of legislators who wrote a letter to Secy Bernhardt.

“That doesn’t, in fact, ask the question as to whether it was, in fact, justified or it was right,” Kennedy said. “That’s why Congress has on a number of occasions superseded that legal structure.”

Expressing their disappointment in the decision --“calling it callous disregard for human decency” in its timing.

The House passed legislation protecting the tribe’s lands and are calling on the Senate to act.

“This isn’t a question so much of an individual tribe, it’s a question of the recognition of the history that native peoples have in this country,” Kennedy said.

The Mashpee Wampanoags have asked the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. to issue an emergency restraining order to stop the land from being taken out of trust and are awaiting a decision.