With supplemental reporting by Kelsey Hill
Thursday marks the day families all over the United States come together over hearty food and football in celebration of Thanksgiving: the holiday that commemorates a shared meal and treaty signing between the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Native Americans.
How perfectly American is it, though, that the Wampanoag — the first supposed Natives that settlers broke bread with — spent the eve of Thanksgiving on the steps of the US Capitol protesting the loss of their homelands?
Last week, over 200 Mashpee Wampanoag tribal members rallied with allies and lawmakers in Washington D.C. to voice opposition to a recent withdrawal of Mashpee land from trust status. This follows a Sept. 7 decision in which the Department of the Interior formally removed land from the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s territory in eastern Massachusetts. This ruling reverses an Obama-era decision to place 321 acres into federal trust for the tribe, and effectively revokes the sovereignty of the Mashpee Wampanoag people.
A Complicated History
Since its conception, the United States has adopted and enforced terminationist policies toward Native Americans in the form of institutionalized genocide, land grabs, and the dismantling of tribal sovereignty—all in violation of Article VI of the Constitution. Due in part to the activism of the American Indian Movement in the 1960s, the US government has shifted away from termination policies to policies enabling Native American self-determination. However, the elimination of the Mashpee Wampanoag land trust harkens back to days when US policies sought to assimilate and/or eradicate Native culture, rather than protecting it. To say that this decision sets a dangerous precedent would be a gross understatement.
“What we’re seeing is a direct assault and attack on Indigenous people’s sovereignty,” Mashpee Tribal Chairman Cedric Cromwell told Indian Country Media Today. “And sovereignty’s a powerful word.”
The Mashpee Wampanoag people, also known as the People of the First Light, list on their website that they have lived in the Massachusetts area for over 12,000 years. The Thanksgiving fantasy of Pilgrims and Indians eating happily together during the first colonial holiday indeed credits the Wampanoag nation as the Native Americans at the table.
Despite a 54,000-page application for land trust status and droves of evidence pointing to federal awareness of the Mashpee people prior to the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe did not receive formal federal recognition until 2007.
Following federal recognition, the Department of Interior granted the application by the Mashpee Wampanoag in 2015 for two parcels of land to be put into trust status. The plan was that the land be used for a 143-unit elder and tribal housing facility, as well as a casino and hotel, which together could provide much needed local jobs and revenue to benefit tribal healthcare and education. When rival casino owners sued the government over the application’s approval, Massachusetts District Court ruled against the Mashpee and cited a 2009 Supreme Court precedent in Carcieri v. Salazar that states land can only be placed in tribal trust status if the tribe was included in the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act.
But because the Mashpee weren’t federally recognized until 2007, the tribe now has no legal claim to its ancestral land. This decision highlights the potential for a dangerous precedent in coming years, as 127 other tribal nations also received recognition after the 1934 act.
“They came for our children and took them to Carlisle because we were 'too Indian,’ Mashpee Wampanoag Vice Chair Jessie Little Doe Baird said during last week’s rally. "Today, they tell us we are not Indian enough."
In the immediate aftermath of the land trust announcement, the Mashpee and supporters mobilized and called for a march on the Capitol demanding Congress pass legislation that would reaffirm the status of the reservation. Dissenting the Dept. of Interior’s decision, they took to the streets, singing songs and voicing opposition to what many call the dawn of a new “termination era.”
The movement is known on social media as #StandWithMashpee.
“The recent Mashpee decision is yet another failure to extend Indian country the same respect, regard, and humanity that we extended to all the settlers here in this land,” said Chief Many Hearts of the Mohegan Tribe of Uncasville, Connecticut in a recent AJ+ video. “During a month designed to honor and celebrate Native Americans, including America’s Thanksgiving story, here we stand, once again, fighting against injustice.”
The protesters were joined by U.S Representative Bill Keating, D-Massachusetts and Rep. Joe Kennedy III, D-Massachusetts, both authors of legislation seeking to reaffirm trust status for the Mashpee Wampanoag people.
Additional support came from five representatives of the National Congress of American Indians, and from members of other tribes who also face land trust issues.
A Legislative Remedy?
Despite making statements about his commitment to tribal sovereignty, President Donald Trump’s administration has been characterized by numerous top-down attacks on Native American history, culture, and livelihood.
Trump himself has an alarming history of relations with Native Americans, often using racialized rhetoric to attack Indian Gaming operations and consistently question claims of Native authenticity. To the horror of Native Americans, the administration’s stance on Native rights seems to increasingly reflect the same disdain espoused by his presidential hero, Andrew Jackson.
Since President Trump has taken office, the Bureau of Indian Affairs has placed an average 12,800 acres of land in trust per year. This number pales in comparison to the 58,860 acres of land put into trust every year by the Obama administration. The progress made during the Obama era on Native land issues is now at risk with the current administration’s plans to make the land-into-trust applications — a process that typically takes years — even more cumbersome. Similarly, Trump-appointed Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, has established additional hurdles for the land-into-trust applications, giving particular attention to the process of establishing off-reservation casinos.
The drastic shift in tone evokes memories of destructive federal policy decisions that terminated Native sovereignty and forced relocation and/or assimilation.
In response to the Mashpee Wampanoag’s land denial and the Trump administration’s shifting land-into-trust policies, HR 5244 was introduced by Rep. William Keating earlier this year. The bill, entitled “Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act,” would restore the Sept. 2015 decision by the Department of Interior to place the land in trust for the Tribe.
If HR 5244 is passed, the Mashpee Wampanoag land will remain irrevocably in trust, allowing the Tribe to act on its own sovereignty by building out its infrastructure and economy. However, in order to become law, the resolution must pass in both the House and the Senate, and then be signed by President Donald Trump.
Because of the destructive precedent the Mashpee Wampanoag decision sets, many are concerned about the future of the other nations that went unrecognized before 1934. Additionally, there is increasing concern under the Trump administration that the various federal agencies responsible for upholding treaty rights (housing, child welfare, Indian Health Services, etc) will succumb to this slippery slope of degrading sovereignty.
The Mashpee land issue is only one of many horrifying headlines to come out of Indian Country in recent weeks. From the threat to the Indian Child Welfare Act to suppressing the Native vote in North Dakota, there’s one truth that’s abundantly clear this Thanksgiving holiday: the United States still allows the systematic disenfranchisement of Native Americans at each and every turn and we must remain vigilant to thwart these attacks.