While most people in the United States have been focusing on the COVID-19 pandemic, a decision to revoke the reservation status of a Native American tribe’s more than 300 acres in Massachusetts has gone relatively unnoticed, according to the Native American International Caucus of The United Methodist Church.
In a recent statement, NAIC leaders raised concerns about the Secretary of the Interior’s decision to disestablish tribal lands of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe located on Cape Cod.
“The Mashpee Wampanoag have lived on their land for more than 12,000 years. After a decades-long struggle to finally win official recognition as a sovereign Native American nation, the U.S. Department of Interior has ordered the removal of 321 acres of land out of federal trust, making it impossible for the tribe to govern on its land,” according to the caucus statement.
The Native advocacy group is calling for United Methodists to raise awareness of the issue and to call lawmakers to support the passage of Senate bill 2808 (H.R. 375), which would protect the tribe’s sovereignty and land rights. The bill was referred to the Committee on Indian Affairs in November 2019 and no action has been taken.
“Taking our land is a direct attack on our culture and our way of living,” said Cedric Cromwell, Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Chairman, in a statement. “The steps being taken now — in the middle of the nationwide pandemic — to disestablish our reservation and take our land out of trust has created a crisis on top of a crisis.”
The land dispute began in 2015 when the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs approved the taking of two areas of land into trust for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe. The tribe planned to use the land largely for housing and economic activities, primarily a gaming casino and resort, to produce needed income, according to court documents.
Local residents filed a federal suit challenging the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ decision. The district court found that the Bureau of Indian Affairs had overextended its authority to take land into trust.
In a March 27 letter, Department of the Interior Secretary David Bernhardt stated that after the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit decision affirming that the Secretary of the Interior lacked the statutory authority to acquire land in trust for the tribe, the tribe did not petition for a panel rehearing. The First Circuit then issued a formal mandate in accordance with its judgment that the Department of the Interior must take steps to rescind the decision, meaning revoking the reservation proclamation and ending the tribe’s plans for a casino.
“The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe remains a federally recognized tribe,” said a Department of the Interior spokesperson in a press release. “This decision does not affect the federal recognition status of the tribe, only Interior’s statutory authority to accept the land in trust.”
The timing of the decision comes as Mashpee Wampanoag leaders have been focused on responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has hit Native Americans hard.
“In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, which already inordinately impacts our tribal people due to lack of access to adequate, life-saving health measures, it is unconscionable to stand by while any tribe is denied the self-determination, authority and access to needed resources to care for its own people,” the Native American International Caucus statement said.
In 2007, the tribe won federal recognition allowing it to reestablish its Indian Reservation where it now operates a Montessori school for more than 40 children, its own police force, medical and dental clinics and tribal housing. The tribe website states that the disestablishment would take away millions of dollars in funding for the tribe’s clean water initiative, critical community programs and emergency services.
“We applaud the NAIC for bringing awareness about this issue,” said the Rev. Neal Christie, assistant general secretary of the denomination’s Board of Church and Society. “There is potential for a lot of collateral damage in this case because this is about tribal sovereignty and could impact all Native tribes.”
The United Methodist Church’s Book of Resolutions includes paragraph 3321 stating: “The General Conference of The United Methodist Church affirms the sacredness of American Indian people, their languages, cultures, and gifts to the church and the world … Treaties are regarded as binding, sacred, and enduring texts by American Indians and Alaska Natives, comparable to the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. … Tribal sovereignty is an inherent international right of Native nations.”
The denomination's Social Principles also state that, “Gambling is a menace to society, deadly to the best interests of moral, social, economic, and spiritual life, [and] destructive of good government. . . . As an act of faith and concern, Christians should abstain from gambling and should strive to minister to those victimized by the practice."The Rev. Chebon Kernell, executive director of the denomination’s Native American Comprehensive Plan, said the action by the U.S. Department of the Interior represents one more form of displacement forced upon a community who has endured similar treatment for centuries.
“We stand in solidarity with members of the Mashpee Wampanoag Nation as they defend their ancestral homelands and rights to self-determination,” Kernell said. “Persons supporting the rights of Native American people should petition congressional representatives and respective parties to reverse this trend immediately.”
Ragghi Rain, vice chair of the Native American International Caucus, agreed.
“We need United Methodists to remember their commitment to heal relationships with indigenous peoples made at the 2012 General Conference,” she said.
On April 27, 2012, in Tampa, Florida, the denomination held an Act of Repentance Toward Healing Relationships With Indigenous Peoples service, acknowledging historic injustices and committing to building a stronger future for indigenous peoples.
“This is one of many opportunities for United Methodists to support Native peoples in a modern context,” she said.
The NAIC and Native interest organizations are showing support for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe through letters and phone calls to lawmakers and on social media by posting the hashtag #StandWithMashpee. In addition, people can support the tribe by signing an online petition.
“We prevent injustices from happening by paying attention and lifting them up,” said Christie. “Oppression takes on many layers and each one requires our vigilance, especially in this time of crisis.”
The 2,900-member tribe has filed a preliminary injunction to prevent the Secretary of the Interior from taking immediate action. The hearing is scheduled for May 7.
The tribe has the support of U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey, Democrats of Massachusetts. They released a statement March 29, which said in part:
“Disestablishment of the Mashpee Wampanoag reservation would re-open a shameful and painful chapter of American history of systematically ripping apart tribal lands and breaking the federal government’s word. We will not allow the Mashpee Wampanoag to lose their homeland. We will fight this cruel injustice that promises to have ripple effects across Indian Country.”
Underwood is a communication consultant with ties to the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference. She is a member of the Comanche Nation of Oklahoma.
News media contact: Vicki Brown at 615-742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.