Taunton Residents Contest Federal Decision Regarding Mashpee Land

Home » Taunton Residents Contest Federal Decision Regarding Mashpee Land

Posted on: February 28, 2022, 08:34h. 

Last updated on: February 28, 2022, 10:21h.

Residents in Taunton, Massachusetts, aren’t giving up on their efforts to prevent a Native American casino resort from coming to town.

Taunton Massachusetts Mashpee Wampanoag casino
Members of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe in Massachusetts in 2018 protest an Interior Department ruling regarding their land in Taunton and Mashpee. The tribe is carrying on with its hopes of securing its economic sovereignty with a tribal casino resort. (Image: The Boston Globe)

The US Department of the Interior (DOI) late last year issued its third and supposedly final ruling on 321 acres of land owned by the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe. The federal agency, which oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs, said the tribe indeed qualifies to have newly acquired lands taken into federal trust.

Federal officials concluded that the Mashpees have historical ties to Taunton and Mashpee. Those towns are where the land totaling 321 acres sits. The tribe acquired the properties in 2012.

The Mashpee, in a partnership with Malaysia gaming giant Genting Group, wants to build a $1 billion casino resort in Taunton. Locals, however, have long opposed the project, known as First Light Resort & Casino. And they aren’t giving up.

Challenge to Latest DOI Ruling

The Interior Department has expressed mixed views on whether the Mashpee property purchased a decade ago qualifies for a trust. Complex federal laws have muddied the legal picture.

The 1934 Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) says only tribes that were federally recognized at the time of the bill’s passing qualify to have newly acquired lands placed in trust. But federal judges have repeatedly ruled that IGRA is open for some interpretation. Federal tribes that gained recognition post-1934 can have lands taken into trust so long as they meet certain criteria, the most important being an ability to prove historical ties to the land.

The Interior Department under the Obama administration took the Mashpee land into trust and essentially paved the way for First Light. But under the Trump administration in 2018, DOI reversed its own decision and evicted the Mashpee property from the trust.

Under Biden, DOI again reversed course, the agency in December saying the land is being permanently placed under federal stewardship. A group of Taunton residents led by David and Michelle Littlefield — the plaintiffs are collectively known as the “Littlefields” — are appealing the 2021 DOI ruling.

Attorneys for the Littlefields say Interior is violating the IRA. The plaintiffs are asking a federal appeals court to overturn the Interior opinion and revoke the land in trust for a second time.

Littlefields and Mashpee

The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe says it isn’t deterred by the latest Littlefields encounter.

We’ve been at war with the federal government and the colonists for over 400 years. The fact that the Littlefields and their counterparts are attacking us doesn’t frighten us,” said Brian Weeden, Mashpee Wampanoag tribal chair. “We’ve been fighting our whole lives and will continue to fight for what’s rightfully ours.”

Weeden added that residents’ concerns regarding a casino coming to their neighborhood and changing the community are unjust. He said Taunton was indigenous land before it became their unrightful home.

“Our ancestors paid the ultimate sacrifice so they [Taunton residents] could be here,” Weeden declared.

Interior hopes the appeals court dismisses the Littlefields challenge. In its December ruling of the Mashpee lands, the federal agency said their previous challenge “is moot.”

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