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Shirley Leung

In Taunton, a gamble that has yet to pay off

The planned site for the Taunton casino is at corner of Stevens Street and O’Connell Way, and it is still vacant.
The planned site for the Taunton casino is at corner of Stevens Street and O’Connell Way, and it is still vacant.(Barry Chin/Globe staff)

TAUNTON — They were supposed to be first, now they will be last — if at all.

For more than a decade, the Mashpee Wampanoag have sought economic reparations in the form of a $1 billion resort casino. Federal law allows federally recognized tribes to operate casinos on their reservation land.

The Mashpee tribe has tried three times — first in Middleborough, then in Fall River, now in Taunton — only to face all sorts of legal challenges along the way. Two years after breaking ground with much fanfare, all the tribe can point to is a desolate construction site, as a full-scale commercial casino gets ready to open in Springfield this year and in Everett next year.

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With their luck running out, the Wampanoag are now counting on Congress — yes, the one that can’t get anything done — to pass legislation to affirm their reservation status so no lawsuit can derail plans for a casino on their land.

That sounds like a loser’s bet until you look at the other option: to hope for a favorable ruling from the Trump administration, whose Department of Interior has been asked by a federal judge to clarify the tribe’s sovereign rights to land.

“We have a new administration that has a different set of Indian policy that is challenging,” Mashpee tribal chairman Cedric Cromwell tells me. “They don’t believe in the policies that were put in place under Obama, and so they are looking to change all the regs and policies for trust lands for tribes.”

That’s what got congressman Bill Keating, whose district includes Mashpee, involved — out of concern that the Wampanoag could lose more than gaming profits. The latest legal challenge could mean the tribe loses its right to govern its own land and the federal benefits that come with that, such as housing and health care.

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“We weren’t centered on the casino,” said Keating who filed a bill in March. “We were concerned they would change the status quo on them.”

Keating has a bipartisan roster of a dozen cosponsors, including four Republicans and much of the Massachusetts delegation. US Senator Ed Markey has since filed a similar bill in the Senate.

But ask Keating the chances of legislation getting done, he doesn’t sugarcoat the situation.

“We don’t know,” he said. “That’s the honest answer.”

Perhaps I caught Keating on a bad day — there are many in Washington these days — but I’m trying to be optimistic here because Congress has affirmed land in trust for tribes before. Legal experts will tell you that the congressional route is a surefire way for the tribe to insulate itself from lawsuits that test sovereign rights. The Wampanoag hold about 320 acres land in trust — roughly split between Mashpee and Taunton.

It’s hard to fathom that the Wampanoag — who welcomed the Pilgrims and ate at the first Thanksgiving — could be stripped of their ability to govern land. That shouldn’t happen, casino or no casino. I reached out several times to the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs to find out if the Wampanoag are just fearing the worst, but I never got a response.

Looking back, it was all so easy for the Connecticut tribes, which were among the first to take advantage of a US Supreme Court decision in 1987 that allowed casinos on reservations and paved the way for Indian gaming. The Mashantucket Pequot opened the wildly successful Foxwoods Resort Casino, followed by the Mohegan tribe with Mohegan Sun casino.

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But then came the backlash. Indian gaming became big, and everyone wanted a piece of the action, including states that began to legalize gambling. Tribes all over the country began to face a wave of lawsuits as they tried to open casinos.

“We are a country [where] everyone has a right to file a lawsuit,” said James Meggesto, cochair of the Native American practice at Holland & Knight law firm in Washington.

These cases, as Meggesto put it, are about “economic jealousy.”

What stopped construction of the Wampanoag First Light Resort and Casino is a lawsuit brought on by Taunton residents with financial backing from a rival casino suitor in Brockton. In July 2016, a few months after the tribe broke ground, a federal judge sided with these residents, ruling that the Mashpee sovereign reservation was invalid and seeking clarification from the Department of the Interior.

The Wampanoag have spent millions of dollars hiring lawyers and historians to prove their status and stand up to court cases. Actually a lot more than that; they’ve been bankrolled by various groups through the years, the latest being Malaysian casino giant Genting Group, which has provided more than $250 million over the past decade.

Genting was also one of Foxwoods’ early financiers. The Wampanoag are expected to pay back the debt with gaming revenues, but what if there is no casino?

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“It’s not forgiven, but we’re not paying it,” explained Cromwell, the Wampanoag chairman.

It’s all-around a high-stakes gamble, and the frustration was palpable as I met with the chairman and Taunton Mayor Tom Hoye recently in an old school building that serves as Taunton’s temporary City Hall nearly a decade after the original one burned down.

Hoye’s office is a reminder that the city of Taunton is the other player that has been waiting for economic redemption after voters endorsed the tribal casino in a referendum in 2012. A community host agreement with the tribe would provide a multimillion-dollar stream of annual revenue.

“That is the number one question I get,” Hoye said. “When is the casino coming?”

The answer should be soon. This country legalized Indian gaming to help tribes like the Mashpee Wampanoag become economically self sufficient. Congress should act so the tribe won’t waste another decade in legal limbo.


Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.