House Votes to Restore Land of ‘First Thanksgiving’ Tribe

A wooden sign advises motorists of the location of Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal lands in Massachusetts. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

(CN) – A bill to restore ownership of tribal land to the Mashpee Wampanoag after the Trump administration took away their Massachusetts reservation passed the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday, though what will happen in the Senate is anyone’s guess.

The Mashpee Wampanoag welcomed the pilgrims in 1620, but it took a 30-year court battle to gain federal recognition in 2007. In 2015, the Interior Department under the Obama administration approved the tribe’s application to re-acquire tribal land for a reservation.

But the Trump administration took that land away in September 2018 – the first instance of taking away a tribe’s reservation since the widely condemned mid-century era of Indian Termination Policy. As a result, the tribe says it has had to borrow thousands of dollars every day to keep its government running.

H.R. 312 passed the U.S. House of Representatives 276 to 146. Mashpee Wampanoag chairman Cedric Cromwell praised the bill’s passage.

“Our tribe has suffered so much in the past from the United States’ failure to protect our land – today the House of Representatives acted to change that history, and to help us take one step closer toward a better and more secure future for the Mashpee people,” Cromwell said in a statement.

A second bill that was supposed to go before the House last week would have barred the Trump administration from taking the land of any other tribes, but the vote was derailed after President Donald Trump tweeted that Republicans should vote against it and again referred to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a supporter of the bill, as “Pocahontas.” The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Raul M. Grijalva of Arizona, said the tweet eroded earlier bipartisan support.

That bill, HB 375, is of major importance for tribes and is a reaction to the Interior Department’s reasoning for taking away the Mashpee Wampanoag’s land: that they were federally recognized after the passage of the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act. The decision was based on a 2009 ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court, Carcieri v. Salazar, which found that federal agencies could not take land into trust for tribes federally recognized after 1934. Such a rationale could theoretically apply to many other tribes.

Among those closely watching the proceedings is Chinook tribal chairman Tony Johnson, who is currently fighting for federal recognition for his tribe. Based around the rich land where the Columbia River flows into the Pacific Ocean, the five tribes of the Chinook nation were a major economic power before European contact and received explorers Lewis and Clark at their destination.

But the Chinook are locked in a court battle over whether the federal government will officially recognize them. Johnson says his nation needs the reservation land that would likely come from federal recognition.

“At the moment our status is clarified, which I’m praying is soon, we will have the need to have land moved to trust for the community,” Johnson said. “Any effort to inhibit that would be a continued act of genocide against our people. Because in the end, so many of the actions that the federal government has taken in regards to us could be seen as nothing else.”

For now, the results of federal recognition – whether determined by Trump’s Interior Department under Carcieri v. Salazar or under HB 375’s proposed update to the Indian Reorganization Act – remain unclear. The bill’s sponsor, Grijalva, wrote in an opinion column for The Hill that the economic basis for tribal nationhood is at stake.

“Towns own land. Counties own land. States own land. The federal government owns land. Land ownership and land use are the basis for our modern economy. When tribes have no control of land, they have no control of their economic destiny,” Grijalva wrote. “The Trump administration took away the Mashpee Wampanoag’s control of the land they relied on for their future, and unless Congress passes a remedy, Trump officials set a precedent that can lead to them passing a similar sentence on other tribes.”

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