On March 27, 2020, in the midst of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Chairman Cedric Cromwell was informed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs that the Tribe’s reservation will be “disestablished” as ordered by the Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, David Bernhardt.
The Mashpee Wampanoag, the People of the First Light, have occupied the same region for over 12,000 years and have faced diminishment of their homelands since colonization. The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe in Massachusetts, the very tribe that welcomed the Pilgrims exactly 400 years ago in 1620, is at risk of losing what is left of their homelands due to a determination made by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The latest decision is a blow to Tribal sovereignty and undermines the future and sustainability of the Tribal Nation.
Cromwell said he believed that the Bureau of Indian Affairs had wanted to contact him to see if there was anything that the Tribe needed during the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, the Bureau offered him news of the Tribe’s disestablishment without providing any justification or additional information.
“At 4:00 pm today — on the very day that the United States has reached a record 100,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and our Tribe is desperately struggling with responding to this devastating pandemic — the Bureau of Indian Affairs informed me that the Secretary of the Interior has ordered that our reservation be disestablished and that our land be taken out of trust. Not since the termination era of the mid-twentieth century has a Secretary taken action to disestablish a reservation,” Cromwell wrote in a statement.
The land in question, which includes 150 acres in the town of Mashpee, Massachusetts and another 170 acres in the neighboring city of Taunton, had been established into trust as of September 2015 by the Obama administration, after years of advocacy work by the Mashpee Tribe. The Obama decision was threatened by the Trump administration in September 2018. The recent Bureau of Indian Affairs order removes the entirety of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s 320 acres of reservation land.
This will mark the first time Native land has been taken out of trust since the “termination era” of the 1940s-1960s in which the US government intentionally attempted to assimilate Native Americans into the broader culture.
The Tribe currently has two lawsuits pending in the courts that could help to counter this decision. On February 27, the First Circuit Court in Boston handed the Tribe an initial set back towards affirming Tribal land permanently into trust. Another case in Washington, D.C. federal court is still pending.
“The Secretary is under no court order to take our land out of trust. He is fully aware that litigation to uphold our status as a Tribe eligible for the benefits of the Indian Reorganization Act is ongoing,” Cromwell said in his statement.
David Bernhardt was confirmed to replace Ryan Zinke as the Secretary of the Interior in April 2019. According to the NRDC, Bernhardt is a longtime Washington insider who previously worked to open up Yellowstone National Park to recreational snowmobilers and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development. Bernhardt is a former lobbyist whose clients include major oil and gas companies as well as Rosemont Copper, a proposed copper mine near Tucson, AZ, that’s been the subject of an 11-year legal battle with the Tohono O’odham and the Hopi Tribes.
Cultural Survival stands in solidarity with the Mashpee Wampanoag in demanding respect for Tribal land rights and denouncing the continual attacks against their sovereignty.
The Tribe is asking Congress to protect its reservation lands and has put forth the "Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act (HR.312)” which would permanently confirm the Tribe’s homeland. The bill has bipartisan support, but it is currently stuck in the Senate. President Trump tweeted his opposition in May 2018, which could slow its passage.
To take action in support of the Mashpee, Sign the petition here.
For more information on how to support the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, visit #StandwithMashpee — Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe
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