December saw the Mashpee Wampanoag Indian Tribe’s reservation reaffirmed and its federally protected trust status confirmed.
The decision allows the tribe to finally pursue building a casino in Massachusetts. Although, the new head of the tribe will approach those plans cautiously.
Currently, the tribe’s land includes 170 acres in Mashpee as well as 150 acres in Taunton.
A long dispute for protected status is finally resolved
The decision to affirm the tribe’s reservation came after a long dispute that began during the Trump administration.
Initially, the federal government sought to revoke the tribe’s reservation designation. The revocation would eliminate reservation status on the tribe’s land in Massachusetts.
This would have included the 300 acres of land the tribe had planned for its $1 billion casino and resort development, First Light.
Even after a federal judge blocked the motion, the Trump administration appealed to the court. The tribe wasn’t recognized until after the Indian Reorganization Act became law on Jun. 1, 1934. This was the reason cited for revoking reservation status.
The tribe didn’t receive official recognition until 2007. However, tribe members say they can trace their ancestry back to the famous Pilgrim harvest meal in the fall of 1621.
Luckily, the Biden administration has abandoned the appeal and affirmed the tribe.
Brian Weeden, Tribal Chairman said:
“This is a momentous day for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe. For indigenous communities across the country, and for defenders of justice.”
Plans for a new Massachusetts casino may be scaled back
Currently, the tribe’s land includes 170 acres in Mashpee as well as 150 acres in Taunton. The tribe initially planned the new casino project for Taunton.
The tribe faces even more opposition to the proposed new casino from residents in Taunton.
Some of those against the proposed development say the tribe’s Taunton lands were not among the lands the tribe held historically. They argue that the lands should, therefore, not be included in the tribe’s reservation.
The 2020 appeal by the Trump administration pumped the breaks on the $1 billion casino project, which broke ground in 2016.
Now, Weeden is considering going the route of a slot parlor to avoid state gaming revenue taxes of 17%.
Either way, this will be a new venue for gambling in Massachusetts.
The tribe needs to address growing debt
In late 2021, Weeden said, the tribe extended its partnership for another year with Genting Berhad. The tribe owes a debt to the Malaysian casino development partners for $600 million, which continues to grow.
Since the debt is due only if the planned casino property opens, Weeden wants to look for ways to address it.
Tribe Chairmans has plans beyond casino development
At 29 years old, Weeden is the youngest person to ever hold the office of Tribe Chairman. He hopes to bring fresh eyes to the tribe’s plans for prosperity in the coming years.
Weeden hopes to address urgent social issues the tribe is facing, like homelessness and substance abuse. Projects being discussed include temporary housing for the homeless in the form of cabins and tiny homes.
Other projects include increased programs and staff for the treatment of both substance abuse and mental health issues.
Weeden has proposed funding for these programs as well as overall financial stability for the tribe through other non-casino avenues. He has suggested the possibility of tax-free developments on tribal lands.
Developments like gas stations, smoke shops, and even shops for recreational marijuana. He says:
“We need to exercise our sovereignty. Casinos are just low-hanging fruit.”
Funding from the government could help the tribe
The Biden administration provided the tribe $15 million from the stimulus bill. The tribe can use this stimulus for some of Weeden’s plans.
Biden’s infrastructure bill also has provisions for tribes to the tune of $11 billion. The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe will pursue federal funds from that bill.
In the wake of revived demands for Black slavery reparations, Weeden says he also intends to pursue restitution for tribal lands seized.
He claims that the tribe’s existing territories make up under 1% of ancestral land and said:
“The original inhabitants of this country are still fighting for what little land we have. Native Americans still don’t have their fair share.”