BOSTON — The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe said Tuesday that a favorable opinion on its land bid from the federal government was a “huge step forward” in its effort to build a $500 million casino in southeastern Massachusetts.
The preliminary advisory opinion, from the federal Office of Indian Gaming, came in connection with the tribe’s bid to acquire lands in trust in Taunton, where it hopes to build the gambling resort, and in the Cape Cod town of Mashpee.
Kevin Washburn, the assistant secretary of Indian Affairs for the U.S. Department of the Interior, wrote in a letter to the tribe dated Feb. 7 that the Indian gaming office had determined that the lands qualified as an “initial reservation.” But the letter also noted that the designation was contingent on the land-in-trust application winning final approval from the department – a process that could take another year or longer.
The opinion “is another huge step forward toward the development of a first-class destination resort casino in Taunton,” tribal chairman Cedric Cromwell said in a statement.
A 2011 state law allows for three regional resort casinos, but gave preference to a federally recognized Native American tribe in the southeastern region.
The Mashpee face other significant hurdles, including ongoing efforts to renegotiate a casino compact with the state. The tribe and Gov. Deval Patrick signed a compact last summer, but it was rejected by the Interior Department, in part because it would have returned too high a share of the tribe’s gambling revenues to the state.
The tribe sought initial reservation status through a clause in the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which otherwise prohibits gambling on lands taken into trust after 1988. The exception applies to more recently recognized tribes that do not have their own reservation.
The Mashpee Wampanoag, a landless tribe that achieved federal recognition in 2007, has cited strong historical ties to Taunton, which is about 40 miles from the tribe’s headquarters in the town of Mashpee.
In a tribe-commissioned report, Kathleen Bragdon, an anthropologist from the College of William and Mary, said the Mashpee was what remained of a larger tribe that once dominated southeastern Massachusetts but was decimated in the 17th century King Philip’s War with English settlers.
The tribe has cited historical evidence that in Cohannet, Taunton’s former Indian name, the tribe had villages and sachems, or chiefs.
“Tribal members and our advisers worked tirelessly to document our historic ties to Mashpee, Taunton and our ancestral homeland encompassing present-day southeastern Massachusetts and eastern Rhode Island,” Cromwell said in his statement.
During a hearing last June held by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Pocasset and two other Indian tribes questioned the Mashpee’s historical claims, saying there was no evidence it had a significant presence in the area.
The Massachusetts Gaming Commission has considered opening up the southeastern Massachusetts casino license to commercial bidders, but decided on Dec. 18 to give the Mashpee three more months to demonstrate progress in overcoming legal and regulatory obstacles.