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Mashpee Wampanoag’s casino bid gets a boost

US ruling cheers tribe

A rendering of the proposed Mashpee Wampanoag casino in Taunton. Proponents say it would be a boon to the economy.

A rendering of the proposed Mashpee Wampanoag casino in Taunton. Proponents say it would be a boon to the economy.

The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe says it has received a preliminary opinion from the US Interior Department that moves the tribe a step closer to building a casino in Taunton.

The department, in what the tribe called a “preliminary advisory opinion,” found that the tribe’s lands in Taunton would qualify as an “initial reservation.” That status would mean that the Wampanoag would be able to conduct gaming there under the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, the tribe said.

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Cedric Cromwell, chairman of the tribe, said the opinion was “another huge step forward toward the development of a first-class destination resort ­casino in Taunton.”

Tribal casinos do not need state licenses; they are ­approved under federal law. But federal law says tribes can only host gambling on sovereign Indian land, and the Mashpee Wampanoag do not have a reservation.

While tribes can buy land, they must persuade the Interior Department to take the land ­into federal trust in order for it to be eligible for a casino.

The Interior Department said in its ruling that it had ­determined that the tribe was seeking an “initial reservation” — the first reservation for a tribe after acknowledgement by the government — a type of designation that means the tribe could host gambling there.

But the department also said its determination was conditioned on approval of the tribe’s request for the federal government to take the land in trust and proclaim it a reservation.

The tribe’s application continues to be reviewed at the ­Interior Department’s eastern regional office, Kevin K. ­Washburn, assistant secretary for Indian affairs, said in a letter to Cromwell that was ­released by the tribe.

An Interior Department spokesman did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

The tribe said it had successfully acquired an option for land in Taunton, negotiated an agreement with the city, won the support of residents in a referendum, and made progress in state and federal environmental reviews.

The tribe still faces another crucial hurdle. In 2009, the US Supreme Court ruled that the Interior Department could take land into trust for tribes only if they were “under federal jurisdiction” when Congress enacted the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act. The federal government did not formally recognize the Mashpee until 2007. The tribe is trying to demonstrate a longstanding connection with the federal government.

Under the 2011 gambling expansion law, the state has opened bidding by commercial companies for casino licenses in Greater Boston and Western Massachusetts, but delayed commercial casino development in Southeastern Massachusetts to give the Mashpee Wampanoag time to pursue a tribal casino.

The Massachusetts Gaming Commission, which controls commercial casino licenses, has been waiting for signs of progress, the Globe reported last month.

Mayor Thomas C. Hoye Jr. of Taunton, a casino backer, said the Interior Department’s ­action was expected, but welcome. “It’s another step in the right direction,’’ he said in a telephone interview.

Hoye said the complex issue of federal approvals may be ­resolved by this summer.

Mark Arsenault and John ­Ellement of the Globe staff ­contributed to this report.

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