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OPINION

Tearing down Christopher Columbus won’t raise up the Mashpee Wampanoag

The Trump administration is trying to take back 321 acres of land that had been put in trust by the Obama administration. Doing so would, in essence, rescind the reservation status needed by the tribe to build and operate a casino.

The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe says an unfavorable decision from the US Interior Department on its tribal reservation status would effectively shut down certain government operations, including building a casino in Taunton.
The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe says an unfavorable decision from the US Interior Department on its tribal reservation status would effectively shut down certain government operations, including building a casino in Taunton.Steven Senne

Go ahead. Tear down every statue of Christopher Columbus to protest the cruelty against indigenous people that began with the colonization of a New World and was then carried forward.

An assault on stone won’t change history — or change the long arc of injustice still endured by Native Americans, including the Mashpee Wampanoag, a tribe that greeted the Pilgrims and participated in the first Thanksgiving. That takes a well-orchestrated, highly concentrated assault on power.

The Massachusetts tribe is currently fighting a move by the Trump administration to take back 321 acres of land in Mashpee and Taunton that had been put in trust by the Obama administration. Taking the land out of trust would, in essence, rescind the reservation status needed by the tribe to build and operate a casino without going through the state licensing process. If that happens, the beneficiaries would be other casino operators, including some with reported connections to President Trump.

Cedric Cromwell, the president and chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag, said the tribe is fighting “a lot of money tied to the president.” According to The Washington Post, Twin River Worldwide Holdings, which operates two casinos in neighboring Rhode Island, is run by executives associated with casinos once owned by Trump. Also, according to the Post, Matthew Schlapp, a Trump supporter and chairman of the American Conservative Union, was hired by Twin River as its lobbyist. Schlapp’s wife, Mercedes, worked in the Trump White House as director of strategic communications before switching over to the Trump campaign.

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I am no fan of casinos as an engine of economic development. But they have been set up as a path to economic justice for tribes stripped of property and sovereignty over the centuries. For the Mashpee Wampanoag, that path has been “a calamity of horrors, errors, and challenges,” said Cromwell. It adds to his view of the Mashpee Wampanoag as “the poster child of native American history.”

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Here’s a short summary since the 1620 arrival of the Pilgrims, compiled by the Associated Press: In 1685, a Plymouth court deeded roughly 55 square miles of land on Cape Cod to the tribe and stipulated the land could not be purchased without the tribe’s consent. It was encroached on anyway. In 1849, when oversight of all tribes was transferred to the US Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe was omitted from the list, supposedly by mistake. In the 1970s, the tribe fought unsuccessfully in state court to reclaim land it once held and began a decades-long process to once again be recognized as a tribe. That finally happened in 2007.

Since then, the tribe has been struggling to get the reservation status needed for gaming eligibility. Victory finally seemed possible with the Obama administration ruling, and the tribe broke ground on a casino in Taunton. But that was derailed when a federal judge said the Obama administration lacked the authority to put the land in trust. Then, in March, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the Trump administration told Cromwell the land would be taken out of trust. Earlier this month, another federal judge called that decision “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion and contrary to law” and ordered the Trump administration to reconsider it — which would mean validating the tribe’s status. Such a change of heart seems unlikely, given that “arbitrary and capricious” is standard operating procedure for this administration.

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Meanwhile, US Representative William Keating, whose district includes the tribe’s land, has been pushing legislation that would establish land-in-trust status for the Mashpee Wampanoag. His bill passed in 2019, despite an effort by Trump to derail it, but has gone nowhere in the Senate. Noting Trump’s current concern over the toppling of statues, Keating said, “He’s tearing down the very existence of the tribe that was there for the first Thanksgiving.”

Beheading a statue of Columbus in the North End or pouring red paint over another one in Worcester won’t stop that. That is energy expended on pure symbolism. It does nothing to change the equation of who has power in America and who does not.


Joan Vennochi can be reached at joan.vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.