The federal government has ruled that the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe does not qualify for a reservation, effectively reversing an Obama-era decision to place 321 acres into federal trust for the tribe.
The Mashpee Wampanoag say that their ancestors have occupied the land in southeastern Massachusetts since before human memory. Tribal leaders are equating this decision to policies like the 1887 General Allotment Act, which sought to assimilate native people into mainstream American culture by dissolving reservation land.
Cedric Woods, director of the Institute for New England Native American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, speaks with Here & Now‘s Peter O’Dowd about what this decision means for the Mashpee Wampanoag and for Indian Country more broadly.
On the 2015 creation of a Mashpee Wampanoag reservation
“It’s extremely significant for a tribe to have territory over which it can exercise undisputed civil and criminal jurisdiction. And that’s exactly what the reservation status creates. When you look at federal Indian law as it’s evolved from the 19th century forward, the power to tax tribes is the power to destroy. By having the land in trust, that removes that threat from tribes.”
On the Trump administration’s ruling that the tribe isn’t eligible for a reservation
“Relatively recently, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that in order for the federal government to take land into trust in behalf of a tribe, it had to be under federal jurisdiction at the time of the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act in 1934.
“My preliminary analysis of this ruling is that the Department of the Interior differentiates between federal awareness that the tribe existed, which it absolutely did, at the time of the Indian Reorganization Act, versus federal jurisdiction. And they did not see that the Mashpee Wampanoag met that standard.”
On what the tribe stands to lose
“The loss of self-governance is a way to destroy tribes. Whether it’s civil action or civil activities like the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe’s language immersion school, or criminal jurisdiction, both of those things are essential powers of self-governance.
“Zoning for construction of homes, a civil code to regulate domestic relationships like custody of children, marriages, divorces — all those things that we think of in the general way that governments function, that’s being removed now from the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe.”
On the historical relationship between tribal nations and the federal government
“This decision is very much part of a broader pattern. Vine Deloria Jr., one of the foremost American Indian intellectuals of the 20th century, described federal Indian policy as like a pendulum, swinging from one extreme to another, with some federal actions being relatively pro-Indian to those being violently anti-Indian and racist. And we’ve seen the entire spectrum of things even in the 20th century.”
On whether lawmakers will support a congressional bill to protect the tribe’s reservation land
“They may not want to, but I’d say they’re morally obligated to do so. The Indian Reorganization Act was passed to undo the harm done by the General Allotment Act. Nothing was ever passed in Massachusetts or at the federal level to undo the harm of the Massachusetts Allotment Act. And both are due for remedies.”
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