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Wampanoag tribe fights latest in long history of ills

Courtney “Morning Gift” Powell works as a guide at the Mashpee Wampanoag Indian Museum. She questions the tribe’s decision years ago to seek to build a casino.
Courtney “Morning Gift” Powell works as a guide at the Mashpee Wampanoag Indian Museum. She questions the tribe’s decision years ago to seek to build a casino.(John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)

MASHPEE — The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe typically takes the long view when confronted with yet another setback in the four tumultuous centuries since it greeted the Pilgrims in Plymouth.

The tribe was decimated by English settlers in the 17th century, forced onto lands that later became this Cape Cod town, and then had to wait until 2007 for federal recognition.

In another blow, President Trump tweeted May 8 that House Republicans should vote against continued federal protection for their tribal lands, which the Mashpee Wampanoag need for a $1 billion casino in Taunton.

“Let’s roll back the tape 400 years,” tribal chairman Cedric Cromwell said with a sigh. “It’s very inhumane, and it’s unjust. But we have to stay focused.”

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Staying positive has become one more hurdle for the tribe’s 2,800 members, whose hopes for a healthy, stable future have become as clouded as the beleaguered prospects for its proposed First Light casino.

Not only has the casino been put on hold, but the tribe’s 321 acres of reservation land in Mashpee and Taunton are in jeopardy, half the tribal workforce has been laid off, and its debt on the First Light project has mushroomed to hundreds of millions of dollars.

The tribe also has been scarred by internal politics, and questions have been raised about its association with a scandal-plagued Malaysian hedge fund that provided more than $400 million to push the casino plan.

“People are upset, people are hurt, and people are confused,” Cromwell said.

“To lose that land would be just devastating,” said Paula Peters, a tribal member whose late father, Russell “Fast Turtle” Peters, served as chairman. “That land is where our tribal center is, where our traditional spiritual gathering place is. That land is where we are building housing to bring our people back home.”

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Despite Trump’s effort to tip the scales, the US House of Representatives on May 15 rejected the president’s advice and approved a bill to affirm the Mashpee Wampanoag’s right to its reservation land.

But its prospects might be shaky in the Senate, where the two senators from Rhode Island — where two casinos are based — are expected to oppose the effort.

The legislative roller coaster has taken its toll on a tribe that has struggled to find jobs, dealt with disproportionate levels of diabetes and cancer, been devastated by opioid overdoses, and watched with alarm as the Cape Cod housing market becomes less affordable.

“It’s scary, and it’s sad,” said Courtney “Morning Gift” Powell, a self-described “traditionalist” who works as a guide at the Mashpee Wampanoag Indian Museum.

Powell, like many of the Mashpee Wampanoag, is questioning whether the tribe made the right decision to link its future so heavily to a casino, a plan first pitched more than a decade ago.

“For me, personally, a casino wouldn’t have been the avenue,” said Powell, 31, whose son has been taught the Wampanoag language. “With casinos come alcohol, addiction, safety issues.”

“It’s very inhumane, and it’s unjust. But we have to stay focused,” said Cedric Cromwell, tribal chairman.
“It’s very inhumane, and it’s unjust. But we have to stay focused,” said Cedric Cromwell, tribal chairman.(John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)

Peters also questioned that decision, which some tribal members believe has diverted much-needed attention from their long fight to win and retain federal recognition, sovereignty, and land to call their own.

“I feel that gaming has been an albatross and weighed us down. It’s as if all our clams are in one bushel basket,” Peters said. “I feel that gaming is not going to be the economic panacea for all of our problems. We could have channeled our energies in a different direction.”

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Cromwell, who recently survived a recall effort, acknowledged in an interview that some tribal members have become frustrated. But a casino, he said, would be a boon that would help the tribe address its many health, education, and housing needs.

“This is no different from a family fight,” Cromwell said of the doubters in the tribe. “I think I’m appreciated.”

Cromwell pledged to fight on, but the stakes in Washington also are high for cash-strapped Rhode Island, where taxes from gambling are the third-largest source of state revenue. Governor Gina Raimondo has worked hard to block the Wampanoag plan, which would place a gaming palace only 25 miles from the Twin River Casino Hotel in Lincoln, R.I.

Headwinds also are blowing from elsewhere. US Representative William Keating of Bourne, a Democrat who sponsored the bill, linked part of the genesis for Trump’s tweet to Twin River lobbyist Matthew Schlapp.

The lobbyist’s wife, Mercedes Schlapp, is the White House director of strategic communications. On the morning of May 8, the same day Trump hit the button on his tweet, Matthew Schlapp wrote one of his own:

“So today, Dems/socialists voted to hold [Attorney General] Bill Barr in contempt for following the law,” tweeted Schlapp, who is chairman of the American Conservative Union. “And soon full House will vote to reward Sen. Elizabeth Warren with . . . wait for it . . . an INDIAN casino in Massachusetts.”

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Warren, whom Trump once again called “Pocahontas” in his tweet, has sponsored a Senate bill that is similar to Keating’s.

The journey to this crossroads has been torturous and complicated. The Obama administration agreed in 2015 to hold 321 acres in Mashpee and Taunton in trust for the tribe, a critical move for the Wampanoag reservation and a future casino with tax and regulatory breaks.

But a group of Taunton residents filed suit in which they challenged the tribe’s right to reservation land in that city, nearly 50 miles from Mashpee.

In response, a federal judge ruled in 2016 that the US Interior Department lacked the authority to hold the land in trust because the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe had not been “under federal jurisdiction” in 1934 when the Indian Reorganization Act was passed.

Following that ruling, the Interior Department last year reversed course and decided the lands could not be placed in trust. Keating’s bill, which was cosponsored by US Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, would undo these tangled threads and give the federal government explicit authority to hold the property for the tribe.

“They’ll then have the sovereign ability to do whatever they want with their land, what’s left of it,” Keating said. “They don’t need any other people telling them what to do with it. That’s their right.”

The bill has drawn harsh criticism from Rhode Island’s two Democratic US representatives, David Cicilline and James Langevin, who have said that the bill “would set a horrible precedent by encouraging other tribes to ask for their own carve-out from Congress.”

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But to the Mashpee Wampanoag, their push to preserve the reservation is anything but a “carve-out.” And the fight is much more about sovereignty, many of them say, than about a 900-room casino-hotel.

The tribe has been in Massachusetts for more than 12,000 years. Its members helped the Pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving. And they continue to live on ancestral lands where ancient hunting and fishing rights remain protected.

“You want to get on the top of a mountain and yell, ‘Will someone please stop this evil against the tribe?’ ” Cromwell said at tribal headquarters.

“What the future holds is, we can’t give up,” he added. “To think that the tribe will give up and crumble, it’s not going to happen.”


Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.