MASHPEE — As a drummer for the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe in New England, Keon Gates is used to leading members in celebratory chants and rituals. But on Saturday, after a federal ruling granted the Wampanoag about 320 acres of sovereign land in Taunton and Mashpee, Gates knew this was something special.
It was not just a ceremony, he said, but a homecoming.
“We finally have our land back,” Gates said, after leading the tribe in two songs. “This is what we’ve wanted all along.”
Members of the Mashpee Wampanoag and supporters gathered at their government center in Mashpee on Saturday for an emotional ceremony some described as the highlight of their lives. More than 400 years after their ancestors’ territory was invaded by Europeans, the lands of the Mashpee Wampanoag have been restored to their original owners.
In addition to the 170 acres that the Wampanoag will control in Mashpee, the tribe also will control 150 acres in Taunton — where they have plans to build a casino.
Cedric Cromwell, chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag, described the casino as win-win for the tribe and for the state government.
After the ceremony, Cromwell said he had spoken with Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito and members of Governor Baker’s administration since the decision. The tribe is securing the necessary permits for construction in Taunton and plans to break ground next spring, he said.
The proposed facility would hold a casino, hotel, and entertainment facilities, along with parking for patrons. The tribe, which calls itself “People of the First Light,” has named the undertaking “Project First Light.”
“Many have misunderstood,” Cromwell said, thinking that “it’s only about gaming. But this is not only Mashpee Wampanoag history, it is American history.”
Cromwell said after his speech that he expects the state government to abide by a 2013 pact, under which the tribe would pay Massachusetts 17 percent of its gambling revenue in exchange for the state’s promise not to license a competing casino in Southeastern Massachusetts.
And while Cromwell declined to speculate on other proposed casinos, other members of the tribe did not want to talk about casinos at all.
To them, this day was about justice, they said.
“We’ve been through so much pain, some of us don’t even know how to celebrate anymore,” said Ramona Peters, a tribe leader.
“Where are we?” she called out to the audience of about 200 people.
“We’re on our reservation!” they replied, whooping and clapping.
“I have waited a good long while for this, and I have seen relatives and good friends pass waiting for this day,” said Joan Avant Tavares, another tribal leader. “It has taken a good long while for this process to self-correct, but the key was to never stop believing. We never gave up.”
The Mashpee Wampanoag are one of three remaining tribes of the Wampanoag nation, and were recognized by the federal government in 2007 after an arduous process of formally documenting their history, leaders said. However, after federal recognition, there was a separate process to pave the way for land ownership as an independent entity.
Because tribes in the eastern United States have been dealing with settlers for almost 400 years, it can be harder for them to accurately trace their land rights and history through the centuries, said lawyers for the Mashpee Wampanoag.
If Wampanoag ancestors had not adopted the Western practice of deeding land to members, there would have been no record of ownership to present to the federal government, said Arlinda Locklear, one of the lawyers.
“Let’s be honest, most of the credit for today goes to your ancestors,” Locklear said to the crowd. “This decision is because these people have always clung to this land as a homeland.”
Tavares, the elder who spoke at the ceremony, said the Mashpee Wampanoag picked cranberries on their land in peaceful solitude before it was stolen by settlers.
Now the Mashpee Wampanoag people are charged with keeping this land for generations to come.
“The cranberries are still here, and so are we,” Tavares said.
And on this land, with recognition by the federal government, the Mashpee Wampanoag will remain.
Astead W. Herndon can be reached at email@example.com.