Judge affirms placing Mashpee Wampanoag tribal lands into trust
A federal judge has ruled against a group of Taunton residents who sued the federal government in an effort to prevent the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe from building a casino in the city.
The judge's decision in U.S. District Court in Boston on Friday granted summary judgment to the U.S. Department of the Interior, which had placed 321 acres of land in Mashpee and Taunton into trust. The tribe, which has about 2,600 enrolled citizens, was an intervenor-defendant in the suit.
Although establishment of the reservation returned only a small fraction of the tribe’s ancestral territory, Tribal Chair Brian Weeden said in a statement Monday that “this reservation is crucial to our ability to exercise our sovereign right to self-governance, to preserve our language and culture, and to provide for our people.”
The anti-casino plaintiffs argued in the suit filed in February 2022 that the Biden administration’s decision affirming the tribe’s reservation was arbitrary, capricious and unlawful because the tribe isn’t eligible for a reservation since it wasn’t an officially recognized tribe in 1934, the year the federal Indian Reorganization Act became law. The Mashpee Wampanoags were not federally recognized until 2007.
They also said that Taunton was not part of the tribe’s historical domain.
The judge’s decision, however, said that the “historical record indicates that the Mashpee have had a robust connection to the designated lands for over four centuries,” and have called the area of southeastern Massachusetts home for thousands of years long before their first contact with Europeans, including the Pilgrims in 1620.
A voicemail seeking comment was left Monday with an attorney for the anti-casino Taunton residents.
The decision was the latest in a yearslong legal battle spanning three presidential administrations over tribal land and whether the tribe has the right to build a casino.
Plans to build a $1 billion resort casino remain on hold. The tribe in 2016 broke ground on what was to be called the First Light casino, which was to include a hotel and shopping, dining and other entertainment options.
But the gambling landscape in the region is much different now. Massachusetts has two Las Vegas-style resort casinos as well as a slots parlor, and the state last month started allowing sports betting.