When Danielle Hill, a citizen of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe of Massachusetts and one of the tribal leaders, heard the news that the Department of the Interior revoked the trust status of their land, she was in shock.
‘The federal government should respect us. This has been going on for 400 years.’
The 321 acres of land on Cape Cod owned by the tribe was subject to a series of legal battles regarding its status shortly after it was put into trust in 2015, a title which grants the tribe sovereignty and federal protection over their land.
Then, in midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Department of the Interior contacted tribal leaders on March 27 to inform them that it decided to rescind the trust status.
“I was really mad,” says Hill, recounting the experience. “I didn’t understand why, in 2020, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, who were supposed to protect us, would do this.”
The timing of the announcement also seems deliberate, says Hill, as tribal leaders are already devoting time and energy responding to the pandemic. “Why would you deliver this news now, of all the priorities that the Department of the Interior has, why didn’t they wait until the pandemic subsided? Why did they do this now?”
People of the First Light
The Mashpee Wampanoag, also known as the People of the First Light, are one of three surviving tribes of the original 69 that made up the Wampanoag Nation prior to European settlement. When the Pilgrims arrived in the year 1620, it was the Wampanoag who welcomed them, and shared with them their food. This event has been commemorated as the first Thanksgiving and the Wampanoag’s actions have thus been celebrated every subsequent year.
However, as the colony grew, the relationship between settlers and natives began to sour.
Mashpee was at one point the reservation set aside for “praying Indians” who had converted to Christianity. However, “the state incorporated Mashpee as a town in 1870 because they wanted our resources,” Hill explains. “And then pieces of the land started to be sold because the natives couldn’t pay the land taxes. That’s how non-natives started to live on the land.”
Today, 321 acres remain under Mashpee Wampanoag ownership — less than 0.5 percent of their original territory. The majority of the tribe’s 2,600 enrolled citizens live in the nearby town of Mashpee.
In 2015, the Obama administration granted the Mashpee Wampanoag their bid to place their land into trust. The tribe promptly began building housing developments, a Wampanoag language school and created their own tribal court. Being on reservation lands, these crucial projects were eligible for federal benefits and exempt from state taxes.
The conflict started when the tribe began to build a casino as a source of revenue.
In February 2016, local residents, who stated that they did not want to live near a casino, filed a lawsuit against the tribe. The 24 residents argued that the Department of the Interior had no authority to place the Mashpee land into trust, claiming that the Indian Reorganization Act — which allows land to be put into trust for native tribes — requires a tribe to have been federally recognized as such at the time of the passage of the IRA in 1934. As the Mashpee did not receive federal recognition until 2007, this meant that they were ineligible to receive land in trust.
The court sided against the tribe and did so again in subsequent appeals.
“I felt powerless,” says Hill. “Our identity was attacked, like ‘you’re not Indian and this isn’t your land so we’re gonna take it.’ It was really painful.”
A Dangerous Precedent
In addition, tribal members and other Native Americans fear that if this decision is allowed to stand, it will set a dangerous precedent for other tribes, many of which also did not attain federal recognition until after 1934. Stripping the Mashpee Wampanoag’s land trust of status could mean the loss of sovereign land for other tribes in the future.
“I want people to know that Native Americans are sovereign nations. It’s not anyone’s opinion to decide if we should be sovereign,” says Hill. “The federal government should respect us. This has been going on for 400 years.”
In their continued fight for their land, Mashpee Wampanoag tribal leaders are working with their legal team to figure out the best form of defense, according to Hill. “We are also mobilizing a community of native and non-native allies to spread the news. We are tackling it on two fronts: through bureaucracy and through regular people.”
On May 7, a federal court will hear a lawsuit that the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe presented against the Department of the Interior’s refusal to uphold their previous decision to place the land in trust.
In preparation for the hearing, the tribe is inviting people to light candles or sacred fires on May 3, joining the tribe in a prayer protest and expressing solidarity. Pictures of fires can be shared on social media with the hashtag #StandWithMashpee.
Additionally, the tribe urges allies to sign a petition and write to their Congresspersons in support of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act (H.R. 312). This act would designate the tribe’s lands as trust land and would overturn any previous court ruling.
Hill knows that the road ahead may be challenging. Nevertheless, she feels hopeful.
“I do feel optimistic in humanity, that there are people who agree that this is wrong, people who want to learn about another culture and fight for us. I know there will be future steps and we will need to fight. But I am in awe at the responses. So we need to keep planting the seeds in people’s minds. And I hope this judge on May 7 will hear them and use his heart.”