In the centuries since its ancestors greeted the Pilgrims in 1620, the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe has struggled to overcome financial hardship, recover lost land and even reclaim its nearly forgotten language.
The tribe’s chief, 92-year-old Vernon “Silent Drum” Lopez, said he is awed by how far the tribe has come since the days of his youth when tribal members lived off the land, but he has mixed feelings about a potential next step: a $500 million casino resort that the tribe is proposing to build in Taunton.
“I know from visiting other casinos, listening to other people … it’s a pro and con thing,” Lopez said.
“If they handle it right, I think it might be good for the tribe,” Lopez said. “Of course, it’s going to take a long time before they can show a profit on it.”
The tribe is among the suitors for the only resort casino allowed in southeastern Massachusetts under the state’s 2011 casino law. That law gave the Mashpee preference in the region, but their bid is far from a sure thing. While the tribe negotiated a compact with Gov. Deval Patrick, there’s no guarantee the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs will approve a land-in-trust application for the Taunton site and legal challenges could potentially follow any decision.
The casino push has been led by Cedric Cromwell, the chairman of the tribe’s governing council and a former manager with Fidelity Investments.
“It’s about a hand up, not a handout. It’s about building a GDP (gross domestic product) for the tribe,” Cromwell said, adding it will also help the state by creating jobs and returning a share of gambling revenues.
Descended from the once mighty Wampanoag Nation, or “People of the First Light,” the tribe traces its history back 12,000 years in modern-day Massachusetts and its ancestors hold a storied place in U.S. history. It was they who negotiated peace with the Pilgrims after the Mayflower landed in Plymouth – a peace, however, that would unravel amid subsequent waves of European settlers.
After a bitter and ultimately unsuccessful land claims suit against the Cape Cod town of Mashpee in the 1970s, the tribe focused on gaining federal recognition, achieving that goal in 2007. The Mashpee, with approximately 2,600 enrolled citizens, does not have its own permanent reservation.
In June, the tribe dedicated a new $14.7 million headquarters with office and meeting space, tribal court, full gymnasium and archive room to safely preserve precious cultural artifacts and documents. Plans are also in the works for a permanent tribal health clinic, charter school and 52-unit housing project.
Operating on nearby Popponesset Bay is First Light Oysters, a 4.6-acre tribe-operated shellfish farm that has grown hundreds of thousands of oysters for the commercial half-shell market while improving water quality in the bay, officials said.
A two-decade effort led by tribal vice chairwoman Jessie “Little Doe” Baird has also helped the tribe reclaim its native Wopanaak language, which had been dormant for more than a century,
Lopez, a veteran of the U.S. military police corps who landed at Normandy on D-Day and worked for decades in a Brockton shoe factory, was chosen in 1999 by tribal members as chief, a traditional rather than governmental position, and he said he generally tries to offer advice while staying out of tribal politics.
He said he supports Cromwell and the council in its bid for Project First Light, as the proposed casino is known, and it could help future generations of the tribe. But he does worry it could leave the tribe in debt or be a corrupting influence.
Lopez is encouraged that the tribe is looking toward its future while keeping an eye squarely on the past.
“Don’t lose your traditions because that’s the way the creator gave it to us to start out with,” he said.