Feds to take up Wampanoag land trust application this month

“Once we have land into trust as a federal sovereign Indian tribe, which we are, we can go ahead and proceed forward with expanded gaming construction and moving towards opening the doors.” - Cedric Cromwell
Mashpee Tribal Chairman Cedric Cromwell.

The federal government plans to take up the Mashpee Wampanoag’s land-in-trust application in the early part of 2013, according to a Dec. 31 letter, heartening tribal leaders’ belief that their quest for a casino permit is moving forward.

Federal approval of land-in-trust is a prerequisite for the tribe to build a casino in Taunton, and skepticism about the tribe’s ability to do so has fueled debate over the future of casino development in southeastern Massachusetts.

“This letter goes against everything else that everyone else has been saying. In fact this letter speaks to the truth in reality that the secretary of the Department of the Interior, through the assistant secretary of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, does have the ability, post-1934, to take land into trust for Indian sovereign tribes,” said Cedric Cromwell, chairman of the tribe. Some have argued that the tribe would have difficulty securing a reservation because it was not recognized by the federal government until 2007.

The application review would go through a number of stages, Cromwell said, and the letter indicates that the federal officials are setting out on the application process.

Some lawmakers have pushed for a deadline for the Mashpee to secure a land-in-trust agreement for the Taunton property where it hopes to build a resort casino.

"We have had this carve-out for tribal gaming, but quite frankly tribal gaming is something that is in trouble right now in Washington. What does that mean for Massachusetts? It means southeastern Massachusetts will be going without a casino for years,” Rep. Robert Koczera (D-New Bedford) told the News Service, when the Massachusetts Gaming Commission was considering opening southeastern Massachusetts to commercial casino developers.

The commission in December elected to wait until March 15 to decide on whether to open up a dual-track application process for commercial developers, and Cromwell said the Dec. 31 letter from Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn affirms the commission’s decision to give the tribe time.

Because of its recent recognition as a tribe, the Mashpee are pursuing a land agreement through an “initial reservation exception” to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. Cromwell said the letter indicates federal officials will issue a decision in January 2013 on whether the initial reservation exception applies, and will decide on the federal office’s ability to approve land-in-trust in early 2013, which is “all leading up to that final decision.”

“After an initial review of the Tribe’s application and other applicable documents in the record, we will be directing the Eastern Regional Director to begin processing the Tribe’s application pursuant to this exception,” Washburn wrote.

The 2,600-member Mashpee Wampanoag tribe encompasses tribes who were present in the region at the time of the Pilgrims arrival in Plymouth, and the government’s decision to move ahead with the tribe’s application for a reservation was moving, beyond its implications for a future casino, Cromwell said.

“Being a Native American, we are land and land is us. And that’s a deep, deep spiritual connection that seven generations before me and seven generations to come will always have, knowing that we were the first Americans, knowing that this was our homeland and it was all taken from us,” Cromwell said. “And we come full circle 400 years later, on the cusp of getting homelands back.”

Another requisite for a MGC license is a valid compact between the tribe and the state, which needs approval from Gov. Deval Patrick, the Legislature and the federal government. The BIA rejected an earlier compact because the state’s 21.5 percent share of the tribe’s gaming revenue was deemed too high and the state was offering concessions, such as hunting and fishing rights, that were beyond the scope of concessions that state had the ability to give.

“While we, the tribe and the state, felt good about it, from a national policy perspective, the Bureau of Indian Affairs has a regulatory structure and policy structure that they had to follow. The good news is that we, the tribe and the governor’s people are back at the table, renegotiating a compact,” Cromwell said about those negotiations.

Asked if the new compact would be more favorable to the tribe in order to pass federal muster, Cromwell said, “We’re looking at national policy, what the BIA has approved. We’re looking at where we’re at with gaming in the Commonwealth. We’re looking at the meaningful concessions that we can support to get to a revenue-share level that can be supported at a national level at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and obviously supported at the Legislature-level at the Commonwealth, and also at my tribal council level.”

Federal approval of land-in-trust would give the tribe the ability to build a casino even if the MGC does not select the Mashpee as the recipient of the casino license designated for southeastern Massachusetts.

“Once we have land into trust as a federal sovereign Indian tribe, which we are, we can go ahead and proceed forward with expanded gaming construction and moving towards opening the doors,” Cromwell said. He said, “The key to the compact is that it builds a relationship between the Commonwealth and the tribe for revenue sharing, and the value of the meaningful concession being exclusivity, and that’s what the compact provides.”

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