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ICYMI: Trump administration takes away Mashpee Wampanoag reservation

While the state and the world focus on the coronavirus outbreak, other stories fly under the radar.

The tribe’s battle to secure federal recognition for its land has hinged on the legal interpretation of the Indian Reorganization Act, a landmark 1934 law sometimes known as the “Indian New Deal.”Steven Senne/Associated Press

Almost four years after a federal judge ruled the Obama administration had overstepped its authority when it created an Indian reservation in southeastern Massachusetts for the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, the federal government formally withdrew that designation, dealing the tribe yet another setback in its quest for a casino.

While the development wasn’t a surprise — the judge said the 2016 ruling was “not a close call,” and the Trump administration hasn’t exactly been supportive of tribal aspirations — the tribe’s leaders had held out hope the administration would try to fight the ruling.

No reservation would mean no tribal casino. Not that the recent withdrawal is the last word: The tribe and its allies are lobbying for Congress to pass one-off legislation recognizing the reservation that the Obama administration sought to create. That would, in effect, circumvent the judge’s ruling.


The legislation might be the simplest, clearest, and fairest solution to the legal soap opera in southeastern Massachusetts. There’s no question that the Mashpee Wampanoag deserve a reservation, but peculiarities of existing federal law mean it hasn’t been able to get one by the conventional process for native American tribes.

But so far, that push has gone nowhere. And it’s not just Republicans thwarting the tribe’s efforts: Rhode Island’s Democratic congressional delegation also wants to stop the tribe from developing a casino that could compete with Twin River.

The latest twist leaves the state’s gaming commission with the same set of bad options it’s had all along: keep waiting, on the remote chance that the tribe gets its reservation, or authorize a commercial applicant. Right now, with casinos shuttered because of the coronavirus outbreak, the question’s on the backburner — but it’ll be back.

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