Feds drop legal battle over tribe's reservation status
MASHPEE, Mass. (AP) — The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe scored a legal victory Friday when the U.S. Interior Department withdrew a Trump administration appeal that aimed to revoke federal reservation designation for the tribe's land in Massachusetts.
A federal judge in 2020 blocked the U.S. Interior Department from revoking the tribe's reservation designation, saying the agency's decision to do so was "arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, and contrary to law." The Trump administration appealed the decision, but the Interior Department on Friday moved to dismiss the motion.
In a filing in a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., the Interior Department said it had "conferred with the parties and none opposes this motion." A judge granted the motion and dismissed the case.
The tribe’s vice chair, Jessie Little Doe Baird, called it a triumph for the tribe and for ancestors "who have fought and died to ensure our Land and sovereign rights are respected.”
“We look forward to being able to close the book on this painful chapter in our history,” Baird said in a statement. “The decision not to pursue the appeal allows us continue fulfilling our commitment to being good stewards and protecting our Land and the future of our young ones and providing for our citizens.”
The Cape Cod-based tribe was granted more than 300 acres of land in trust in 2015 by then-President Barack Obama, a move that carved out the federally protected land needed for the tribe to develop its planned $1 billion First Light casino, hotel and entertainment resort.
The tribe learned in March 2020 that the federal government was moving to reverse the reservation designation. The Trump administration decided it could not take the land into trust because the tribe was not officially recognized as of June 1, 1934. That was the year the federal Indian Reorganization Act, which laid the foundation for modern federal Indian policy, became law.
At the time, the tribe’s chair called it a “sucker punch.”
The Cape Cod-based tribe, which traces its ancestry to the Native Americans that shared a fall harvest meal with the Pilgrims in 1621, gained federal recognition in 2007.
U.S. Rep. Bill Keating, D-Mass., whose district represents Cape Cod, applauded the decision to drop the appeal.
“The claim that the Tribe of the First Light, the Tribe of the First Thanksgiving was not an original Native American Tribe has always been disingenuous,” Keating said in a statement. “And the Trump Administration’s sudden attempt to remove their land from trust last March — in the midst of a pandemic — was heartless.”
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