Wampanoag Leaders Call for Unity Following Latest Court Victory
MASHPEE — The Mashpee Wampanaog Tribe is celebrating its most recent victory in ongoing litigation in the nation’s capital against the U.S. Department of the Interior.
On Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Rosemary Collyer, of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, issued an order denying a petition by the plaintiffs in the separate Littlefield litigation to have the court case against the Interior transferred back to the First Circuit Court in Boston.
The order gives the Tribe the benefit of a legal forum to advance its argument that the Interior was “unlawfully arbitrary and capricious” when it disregarded the statutory interpretation used to take over 300 acres of land into trust for the Tribe in 2015. In 2018, the Interior Department withdrew its support of the Tribe “without sufficient explanation.”
“She believes that Zinke acted on his own discretion or did not follow the rules, which is illegal,” said Tribal Chairman Cedric Cromwell.
“The significance of this victory and its importance to our Tribe cannot be understated. Judge Collyer agreed with every single argument that we advanced and showed, as a Reagan-appointed judge that our issue is a bi-partisan plight with ‘national policy implications’ for the rights of tribes across the U.S. She was also right to point out that the Tribe has received support from pan-tribal organizations representing more than 250 tribes across the U.S. who all agree that the Interior was unlawfully arbitrary and capricious.”
In 2015, the tribe has received a positive record of decision for land in trust, roughly 320 acres in the City of Taunton and in Mashpee.
“There was a group called the Littlefield Players who are funded by Neil Bluhm, who is a billionaire trying to get a casino in southeastern Massachusetts, Twin Rivers also funded this group, to sue the United States and say the Tribe shouldn’t have land put into trust,” Cromwell explained.
“So, what happened was in September of 2018 the Department of Interior reversed its decision. So, under Obama we got trust land and under Trump, they come back with the same attorneys and say, ‘oh, you don’t meet the definition of Indian.’ It’s really absurd, it’s really sad.”
The victory follows another success on Capitol Hill for the Tribe last month, when the U.S. House of Representatives voted with a near supermajority to pass legislation confirming the reservation status of the Tribe’s lands under dispute in Taunton and Mashpee.
While the Tribe’s bill has cleared the House, the only hurdles remaining are for it to pass the Senate and finally be signed by the President. Cromwell says the Tribe is “spending tons of resources that we should not have to,’ on costs for legal representation and litigation.
“Congress has disciplinary authority, they have fiduciary responsibility and they have a responsibility over other tribes to right wrongs. So, we’re asking Congress to, you know, come on, just pass this bill so we don’t have to go through an expensive process, which is taking resources away from our people,” Cromwell said before recognizing help received from local delegates.
“I will applaud Congressman Joseph Kennedy, of the House of Representatives; Congressman Bill Keating, the entire Massachusetts delegation along with House Natural Resources Chair Raúl Grijalva (D) – who ensured the bill got passed through the House. “
With the recent success in Congress and the courtroom, the Tribe is simultaneously locked in a legal dispute with some of its own members. The Tribe says a small number of Tribal members have “seized on the delays and suffering caused by the litigation to pursue their own goals.”
In particular, a previously ousted member of the Tribal Council has petitioned for the recall of Chairman Cromwell and Treasurer Gordon Harris. The Tribe says this previously ousted member of the Tribal Council has “launched a smear campaign with false claims of missing funds, which have been echoed across the region with anonymous and unlawful ‘robo calls’”.
The Tribe says the calls state the Tribe’s Gaming Authority is unable to account for over $250 million, money that is available for monitoring on public record with the recorded public votes of Tribal Council. The $250 million in question in these ‘robo calls’ went towards acquiring the 300 acres of trust lands for the Tribe, establishing a Compact with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, multiple cooperation agreements with local governments, and fighting legal and legislative battles from Massachusetts to Washington D.C.
The calls did not identify who orchestrated or paid for the calls in an apparent attempt to flout public disclosure requirements for political campaigns. The calls also allegedly violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) laws against sending robo messages to restricted call lists.
The ‘robo calls’ also claimed that recent absences of Treasurer Gordon Harris, which were due to a personal medical illness, and separately, a personal property disaster, are evidence of his nonfeasance.
Harris says the accusations are not only false, but also they are obviously intended to deceive and incite community members.
“Tribal Council has laid out every single expense of the Tribe in accordance with annual and quarterly financial statements that adhere to generally accepted accounting principles and financial reporting standards. These financial statements have been prepared and made available for review by each Tribal Council member every month with periodic reports made to the general membership of the Tribe on a consistent basis for the last ten years. At no point have any Federal or private funds gone unaccounted for,” said Harris.
Chairman Cromwell says that Tribal members have “had enough of the divisiveness.”
“Open debate within our tribal community is normal and healthy, but let’s keep it clean and on the facts. There are many people eager to revel and write about us fighting amongst ourselves, but that does not reflect what is actually happening on the ground. As we fight to keep control of our tribal lands and our sovereignty we must stand together and not let lies and fear distract us from the real progress that our mission for justice is making.”