MASHPEE — Brian Weeden never liked being told he was “too young.” When he was 16 and wanted to run for a seat on the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Council, he learned he needed to be at least 25.
So he formed his own tribal council — for youths ages 13 to 21. He later joined a national Native American youth organization and served on nearly every board, committee, and commission the tribe or the town of Mashpee has to offer.
Now, that early experience has culminated in the challenge of a lifetime: Last month, Weeden was elected chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag’s Tribal Council. At 28, he is the youngest person to serve, and he takes the reins during a particularly tumultuous time. Embezzlement, bribery, and extortion scandals swirled around his two predecessors and ultimately brought them down.
Weeden’s election victory did not occur by happenstance, he said. It was by design. This is the reason he put his college education on hold. Why he never left his ancestral home.
“It’s been over 13 years in the making,” said Weeden, his wavy black hair pulled back into a neat knot.
Weeden knows he’s got his work cut out for him restoring faith among members and the public. For more than a decade, corruption scandals haunted the tribe. He also has inherited a quagmire of a $1 billion casino project in Taunton and a mound of debt to go with it.
“Our tribe was lacking leadership,” Weeden said. “That’s why I wanted to run for this position.”
The casino project, from Weeden’s perspective, was “pushed down everyone’s throats” by previous leaders. He is not wedded to moving ahead with the project and would rather pursue restitution from the Commonwealth for lost lands and other reparations.
As chairman, Weeden oversees the tribe’s executive and legislative branches, running a nation of about 3,000 enrolled tribal members with its own police force, court system, health services, and education departments. On top of that, he is also the gaming authority president.
Weeden’s only living grandfather, Everett “Tall Oak” Weeden, said his grandson’s current position was meant to be.
“We did all that we could to cultivate these very special qualities that we saw in him at a very young age,” said Everett Weeden, 84. “He’s been dancing and singing Indian songs since he was old enough to walk.”
Weeden said his grandson has not only determination but also the humility to go with it and he knows right from wrong.
It was when the youth council formed and held its own pow wow that Everett Weeden discovered “what a dynamic speaker” his grandson was. “He has that ability to reach out into everyone’s hearts because he speaks from his heart.”
On election night, when others were awaiting the results at the tribe’s community and government center, the younger Weeden was at the old cemetery “with his ancestors getting advice for what was to come,” his grandfather said. “And that’s how he will hold office. He’s always been spiritual-minded.”
A recent tour of the Cape Cod tribal property with Brian Weeden underscores the affection the Mashpee Wampanoag feel for him.
“Hi Bri,” several addressed the 6-foot-3-inch leader as he strolled through the modern complex that houses everything from a gymnasium and basketball court to a temperature-controlled archive of historical documents and deeds. “Hello Honey Bunny,” one woman said. “We’re hearing good things about you,” said another.
Down a path on the 50-acre tribal property off Great Neck Road South, a traditional winter shelter remains. Weeden grew up running through these woods that surround the dome-shaped wetu. As a child, he and his family pitched a tent in a clearing nearby and camped out one homeless summer when the going got rough. Other tribal families frequently do the same, he said.
By Weeden’s own admission, he wasn’t “a normal kid.”
“I was paying more attention to the elders, attending council meetings or attending ceremonies and pow wows, you know, playing in the river,” he said. “I think that that foundation really helped keep me grounded here.”
Weeden graduated from Mashpee High School in 2011. His collegiate coursework, left incomplete at Cape Cod Community College, was preparing him for certification as a preschool teacher.
During the pandemic, he worked a temporary custodial job at a local school, and before that, he was a teacher trainee in the tribe’s Montessori school.
Weeden and his girlfriend are expecting their first child in November. He also has three godchildren.
“I am all about the youth,” Weeden said. He hopes to roll out an internship program to get young people interested in tribal operations and groom them as future leaders.
“I’m here for the time being,” Weeden said. “But I’m definitely looking for the next young person to train and to take over, hopefully, one day, as the next leader of the tribe.”
Leadership and activism run in the family. Both of Weeden’s parents are tribal members from large families.
Weeden’s maternal great-uncle was Chief Flying Eagle, aka Earl Mills. His father’s mother, Patricia Turner Weeden, was a licensed practical nurse who was instrumental in establishing the tribe’s health services. “Grandma Pat” also was the tribe’s first Pow Wow Princess and would remain so for three years, he said.
Everett Weeden, his paternal grandfather, also served in tribal politics, was a member of AIM — the American Indian Movement — and joined in its 500-strong occupation of the US Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington in 1972.
The Mashpee Wampanoag — People of the First Light — are one of three surviving tribes of the original 69 in the Wampanoag nation. They were the so-called “Greeters of the Pilgrims” at Plymouth Rock and took part in the celebrated (and mythologized) Thanksgiving feast. Crispus Attucks, killed in the Boston Massacre, was a Wampanoag. They fought alongside colonists in the American Revolution.
Weeden already has plunged into the job. In his first week as chairman, he and the tribe’s grant writer and treasurer worked to meet deadlines to apply for $20 million from President Biden’s pandemic relief plan and a child development grant. They have already received the money, Weeden said.
He also brought an inflated tribal operations staff down from 120 to about 50, he said, and he eliminated the chairman’s reserved parking space, “small strides,” so far, by Weeden’s measure.
First and foremost, it’s time to heal and rebound from the past two administrations.
Around the time the Wampanoag won federal recognition in 2007, legal troubles for former chairman Glenn Marshall began to surface. He pleaded guilty in 2009 to numerous charges, including embezzling nearly $400,000 from the tribe, and served a term in federal prison.
Marshall’s successor, Cedric Cromwell, would face federal charges, too. He was arrested last November and has pleaded not guilty to extortion and bribery charges related to the tribe’s decade-old First Light Casino project in Taunton.
“I think that because our former leadership was more worried about their personal interest that they kind of neglected the community,” Weeden said.
Case in point: When Weeden attended a recent elders meeting, he was greeted with astonished elation. Previous chairmen had seldom attended such gatherings, he said.
“To me, that’s sad,” Weeden said. “It’s not only important that you work here, but that you’re visible.”
Moving forward, and relegating the previous administrations to the past, is primary on Weeden’s agenda.
“I think that the former administration set us up for failure,” he said. The muddled casino attempt and its mound of debt along with the federal investigations, indictments, and arrests have taken a toll on the tribe, he said.
It’s time to cut ties with all things related to the “old regime,” Weeden said. That means trimming the staff of some positions filled by the former administration and auditing its work, including that undertaken by the gaming authority. It also means reevaluating vendors the tribe does business with. Basically, Weeden’s cleaning house.
As far as the Taunton casino goes, that’s up for reassessment, too, he said.
“Right now we’re just waiting to feel out the membership to see if there’s still an appetite for a casino,” Weeden said. “If the membership wants to continue gaming, then we will pursue gaming.”
From its quest for a casino, the tribe has debt estimated at more than $500 million. The money is owed primarily to Genting Malaysia, which is financing the project and bought out the previous investors.
“We have a lot to do to restore the trust here in the community, and we’re starting to make good on those promises,” Weeden said. “I think that as long as we listen to the community and do what they want us to do, and we do right by them, everything will be fine.”