TAUNTON — Sitting in her living room with her neighbors, Michelle Littlefield listened closely as the mayor and tribal leaders touted the merits of a resort casino, which would be built just down the street from her modest ranch home.
When their pitch was done, Littlefield made a silent vow.
“Hell, no,” she said to herself.
Four years later, Littlefield, 47, has emerged as the public face of an emotionally charged, last-chance effort to stop the Mashpee Wampanoag’s $1 billion casino, even as workers plow ahead with construction.
A mother of two and an active school and church volunteer, Littlefield is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the federal government’s designation of the casino site as tribal land, perhaps the last obstacle in the casino’s path.
Although outnumbered and outfinanced by the deep-pocketed investors backing the Mashpee bid, and the government lawyers defending it, Littlefield is confident she and about two dozen neighbors will prevail.
“The casino will never be built,” Littlefield said in a matter-of-fact voice, sipping coffee in her kitchen. “It just won’t.”
Last week, Littlefield and her lawyers won a small victory when a federal judge rebuked her opponents in the lawsuit for attempting to delay the proceedings. Instead, the judge set July 11 to hear the case.
The neighbors’ lawsuit had been partially bankrolled by Neil Bluhm, a Chicago developer who was seeking to build a casino in Brockton, just 20 miles from the Taunton site. When the state Gaming Commission voted down the Brockton plan in April, the funding quickly dried up, Littlefield said.
The group now relies on small-scale fund-raisers, such as a recent yard sale that brought in $1,000. Despite its shoestring funding, the group is determined to see its lawsuit through, and its lawyers recently filed hundreds of pages of polished legal briefs asking a court to halt construction on the casino, which is slated to open next summer.
While most industry observers predict the neighbors’ challenge will ultimately fail, their underdog campaign remains a threat to what has been billed as the Taj Mahal of New England casinos, as well as the state’s grand plan for three gambling resorts.
“It shows how tenacious casino opponents, like these neighbors, can put up a long fight against even the most powerful of casino developers,” said Richard McGowan, a Boston College professor and gambling specialist.
Littlefield and her husband, Dave, said they are not philosophically opposed to casino gambling, or even to a casino in Taunton. What galls them, they said, is the “incredible arrogance” the federal government showed in creating an Indian reservation in their backyard, some 50 miles from the Mashpee headquarters.
“The federal government has no basis for a Mashpee reservation in East Taunton,” said Dave Littlefield, a skydiving instructor who in recent years has immersed himself in the legal intricacies of tribal designations. “The Mashpee have no historical ties to this land. It’s not their land. What the federal government did is wrong.”
To advance their claim, the Littlefields have hit the stacks at university libraries from Yale to Harvard to research centuries of tribal history, and have testified against the casino in Boston and Washington, D.C.
The couple’s public opposition to the casino, which is widely seen as an economic catalyst, has made them targets of personal attacks. Critics have denounced the group as antigovernment extremists who are biased against Native Americans, claims the Littlefields sharply deny.
“We have received threats, we’ve had abusive things said about us online, we had a bottle thrown at us,” said Dave Littlefield, 51. “I’ve been called a skinhead. But we’re not afraid.”
When the group filed their lawsuit in February, the Mashpee accused the Littlefields of being affiliated with a national group some Native Americans consider discriminatory for their questioning of tribes’ legal status. The couple readily acknowledges contact with the group, the Citizens Equal Rights Alliance, but “as a resource, not as an ally,” Michelle Littlefield said.
The Littlefields said their opposition is simple: They don’t consider the Mashpee to be a legitimate tribe. Michelle Littlefield said research shows the tribe “ceased to exist” under a government policy of assimilation carried out in the 19th century.
The federal Bureau of Indian Affairs read the history differently and conferred federal recognition on the Mashpee in 2007, the first step in building the casino. The agency later backed the tribe’s contention that its ancestors once lived on the Taunton land where the casino is planned.
Dave Littlefield said other tribes — the Pokanoket, for one —
“They said, ‘Let’s just give it to them,’ ” Dave Littlefield said.
He clearly relishes his oppositional role, smiling as he recalled a time when a tribal leader caught sight of him at the State House.
“The look on his face when he saw me, it was like, ‘Oh my God, what’s he doing here?’ ” Littlefield said. “That’s when we knew we were getting to him.”
Adam Bond, the Middleborough lawyer who represents the neighbors, said the case hinges on a 2009 US Supreme Court ruling known as the Carcieri decision. It clearly restricts eligibility for reservations to tribes that had an official relationship with the federal government in 1934, decades before the Mashpee gained federal recognition, he said.
Bond described the Littlefields as “your average American couple who work hard, buy a house, raise a family, pay their taxes, and want to protect what they’ve got.” He promised to continue the legal fight, even if it means working without pay.
Michelle Littlefield said she is sure their campaign will pay off eventually, perhaps with another Supreme Court ruling.
“I’m looking forward to five years from now, when everyone is talking about the Littlefield decision,” she said with a smile.