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The U.S. Department of the Interior ruled Friday it cannot hold land in trust for a Massachusetts tribe, reversing a decision it made under former President Barack Obama and throwing into doubt the tribe's plans for a $1 billion casino.
The agency, in its 28-page ruling, said the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe does not qualify for having land placed into trust because it wasn't under federal jurisdiction when the Indian Reorganization Act passed in 1934.
The Cape Cod tribe, which traces its ancestors to the native Americans that broke bread with the Pilgrims nearly four centuries ago, received federal recognition in 2007.
Land in trust is a special status in which the federal government holds the title to the property and allows the tribe to make its own decisions on how to develop the tax-exempt land and its natural resources.
Tribal Council Chairman Cedric Cromwell said the decision is a "tremendous blow" to the tribe's efforts to preserve the reservation it was granted by the agency just a few short years ago.
The Interior Department took 321 acres into trust for the tribe in 2015 and later declared it the tribe's sovereign reservation.
But a federal judge ordered the agency to reconsider the decision in 2016 after local residents sued, in large part because they opposed the tribe's plans for a resort casino near the Rhode Island state line.
The tribe had broken ground on that project but halted work following the judge's decision.
David Tennant, a lawyer for the casino opponents, said Friday his clients are "gratified" the rule of law has been "vindicated."
But Cromwell, in his statement, said the tribe now hopes Congress intervenes.
Massachusetts lawmakers submitted legislation earlier this year effectively enshrining the tribe's reservation into law and preventing further legal challenges.
"This is a tremendous blow to our Tribe without whom America's earliest settlers would not have survived and it should also alarm Tribal Nations all across Indian Country," Cromwell wrote. "We implore Congress to act now."
Tribes across the country have been closely watching the Mashpee case, with many prominent ones voicing support for the legislation pending in Congress.
Indian law experts have suggested a decision against the tribe would represent the first time in decades a tribe had lost lands after they had been placed into trust by the U.S. government.
Spokespersons for the Interior Department and its Bureau of Indian Affairs didn't immediately comment Friday.
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