TAUNTON — The first step in placing the Mashpee Wampanoag’s target casino site in Taunton into federal trust – a requirement for tribal gaming to move forward there – was taken Wednesday, with the US Bureau of Indian Affairs gathering public concerns over possible environmental effects of the project.
About 200 people turned out for the hearing, most opposed to building a casino resort in the East Taunton industrial park.
A half-dozen representatives from a string of Pokanoket tribes, standing together at the microphone, questioned the Mashpee tribe’s right to the Taunton land, arguing that the Mashpee have no historic ties there.
Billy Guy, sagamore of the Pokanoket, outlined his tribe’s 400-year history in Southeastern Massachusetts.
“The Mashpee were never part of this area,” he said. “I don’t know why the Bureau of Indian Affairs is backing them. You need to check the history and do the right thing.”
Daryl Black Eagle Jamieson, vice chairman of the Pocasset Tribal Council, expressed similar sentiments.
“We think it’s an insult for the Mashpee to come in and try to put land in trust in Pokanoket territory,” he said.
Prior to the hearing, George Spring Buffalo, Pocasset tribal chairman, said area tribes are preparing hundreds of pages of historic documentation supporting their claim to land in Southeastern Massachusetts and discounting the Mashpee claim.
“These people are coming in and stealing our territory,” Spring Buffalo said. “The Pocasset have always been here. Our territory stretches from Rhode island, through Bristol County, Middleborough, Freetown, Dartmouth, and Taunton.”
Outside the hearing, Mashpee Tribal Council chairman Cedric Cromwell said his tribe’s “aboriginal ties to the land and our history there are well documented.” Cromwell added the hearing was a “monumental step” for the tribe.
The Aquinnah Tribe, whose bid to secure casino land in either Freetown or Lakeville failed in recent local referendum votes, submitted a letter to federal authorities supporting the Mashpee application, saying both their tribes had “historic and modern connections” to the Taunton area.
Several Taunton residents, many of them potential neighbors of the casino, voiced concern over traffic, damage to drinking wells, storm water runoff into the Taunton River, gambling addiction issues, and public safety worries.
“The casino entrance is 300 feet from an elementary school,” said East Taunton resident Diane Place.
Veronica Casey, whose family has lived in east Taunton since the 1940s, told Bureau representatives, “I consider it to be my ancestral home.”
The environmental review process will take from 13 months to two years to complete, according to Burean of Indian Affairs officials.
Jeffrey O’Neill, property manager for the neighboring Crossroads Commerce Center, complained that the casino resort would interfere with business tenants.
The “projected traffic volume, mitigation measures, and roadway configuration . . . will substantially impair access to and from the Commerce Center property and cause extensive congestion, complexity, and inefficiency,” O’Neill wrote in a statement he submitted to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
He added, “Crossroads will take all necessary action to protect its proprietary rights.”
Carol Kelley, who sits on the Citizens Equal Rights Alliance board of directors, cited the 2009 Supreme Court ruling that bars the US Bureau of the Interior from placing land into trust for tribes not federally recognized prior to the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act. The Mashpee tribe won federal recognition in 2007. “The Mashpee are headed for a federal dead end,” Kelley said.
She also cited a Supreme Court decision handed down earlier this week that expands the number of people who can file lawsuits challenging gambling developments.
“It opens the door to residents in all the towns to sue the Bureau of Indian Affairs for taking land into trust,” Kelley said.
The environmental review process will take from 13 months to two years to complete, said bureau officials.Christine Legere can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.