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Interior Department reaffirms status of tribe's reservation

In this June 25, 2018, photo, a wooden sign advises motorists of the location of Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal lands in Massachusetts. (Steven Senne/AP File)
In this June 25, 2018, photo, a wooden sign advises motorists of the location of Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal lands in Massachusetts. (Steven Senne/AP File)

A Massachusetts tribe's long-disputed reservation was reaffirmed by the Biden administration on Wednesday.

The decision by the U.S. Interior Department confirmed the status of the Mashpee Wampanoag Indian Tribe’s Reservation, Tribe Chair Brian Weeden said in a written statement.

The decision means the tribe’s reservation has remained in federally protected trust status since the reservation land was first placed in trust in November, 2015.

“This is a momentous day for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, for indigenous communities across the country, and for defenders of justice,” Weeden said.

The decision follows a key victory for the tribe in February, when the Interior Department withdrew a Trump administration appeal that aimed to revoke federal reservation designation for the tribe’s land in Massachusetts.

In 2020, a federal judge blocked the Interior Department from revoking the tribe’s reservation designation, saying the decision was “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion and contrary to law.”

The Trump administration appealed. Under the Biden administration, the department abandoned the appeal, paving the way for Wednesday’s decision.

The Cape Cod-based tribe was granted more than 300 acres (1.2 square kilometers) of land in trust in 2015 by then-President Barack Obama, a move that carved out the federally protected land needed for the tribe to develop its planned $1 billion First Light casino, hotel and entertainment resort.

The tribe learned last year that the federal government was moving to reverse the reservation designation.

The Trump administration had decided it could not take the land into trust because the tribe was not officially recognized as of June 1, 1934. That was the year the federal Indian Reorganization Act, which laid the foundation for modern federal Indian policy, became law.

The tribe, which traces its ancestry to the Native Americans that shared a fall harvest meal with the Pilgrims in 1621, gained federal recognition in 2007.

Weeden thanked President Biden and other elected officials, including U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey and U.S. Rep. William Keating — all Massachusetts Democrats — for their support.

“Today’s decision allows us to reclaim and protect our cherished Land and better serve the Mashpee Tribe for generations to come,” Weeden wrote. “While the injustices inflicted upon us cannot be erased, we can look to the future — a future of freedom, a future of prosperity, and a future of peace. We wish this not just for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, but for Tribal communities all across the land.”

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