Trust Issues with the Department of Interior

By Bradley Billy and Jamie Colvin

The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, located in Massachusetts, has been a part of the tribal reservation system since 2007, but their sovereignty may be threatened by the U.S. government. The tribe sits on 321 acres worth of land held in trust by the government. An announcement was made on March 27th that the Secretary of the Interior was ordering the reservation to be disestablished and taken out of trust — reactions were negative. The announcement has caused tribes to be fearful that they will be next line to have their lands taken away. 

Many people in Indian Country have voiced opinions on the matter and for the most part, are against the separation of the tribe. Royce Billy, a member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, had this to comment, “My first reaction to the announcement was shocked, then came anger, and frustration. It was too coincidental that it would happen during one of the worlds’ latest pandemic.”  

Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal member Casey C. Thornbrugh has his own thoughts concerning this issue for his family and people. He mentioned how his Tribal citizens have stressed him because of the rising cases of COVID-19 as well as having multiple Tribal citizens on the very “front line of COVID-19.” He continued, “in the midst of this pandemic I felt as if the United States dropped a bomb on my Tribal Nation…” 

The tribe was blindsided by the announcement and announced they would fight the decision in court. Widespread support from various tribal nations has come out in support of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe as the decision to challenge the move was sent to the Supreme Court. 

The tribe has the right to challenge the decision as they have “…essentially borrowed money to buy back land in the Town of Mashpee and in Wampanoag homelands in southern Massachusetts.” Thornbrugh explains. He says, “In 1842, the Massachusetts legislature allotted these lands leaving 5,000 acres left for joint Tribal ownership.”  The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe has already experienced decades of being forced to sell their lands off because of high property taxes, creating a loss of jurisdiction for the Tribal nation, and leaving the state and private landowners to own this land that was in trust. By 2015, the Tribal Nation purchased 321 acres of land acquiring only 2% of what was originally owned in the 1800s. 

Upholding this jurisdiction and the land in trust meant positive outcomes for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe mentioned my Thornbrugh and says, “Our Tribal Nation was able to re-establish our Tribal police department…,” “…we could work with the EPA to establish water quality standards under…Treatment in a Manner Similar to a State or TAS.” 

Jamie Billy, another member of the  Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, has voiced his thoughts on the matter, “ I am sure there is an appeal process, but it will be an uphill battle considering the current government ideology, it is just another way to try and erode tribal sovereignty.” Tribal Sovereignty has been a discussion for many years and this decision by the government will be added on top of that discussion. This decision to take away tribal lands has put other tribal nations in fear that they might be next.

Tribal Nations have voiced their support for the Mashpee Wampanoag but are scared for the sovereignty of their tribe. Royce Billy had additional comments, “It’s scary to think that the tribe will lose their reservation status. I believe that the other sovereign nations will use this as an example of how to fight the battle with the current administration. The support from other Tribal nations could be a factor in their lawsuit against the Federal Government. Thorbrugh describes how the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe is being transparent throughout this court battle and handling everything they can to their greatest ability. The main concern for the tribe is working on the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation bill to be handle accordingly since the decision on the removal of the land-in-trust. Thorbrugh expresses his concerns about this uprising issue and says, “…I feel my country the United States is failing. I feel we have a President and too many elected officials who are either ignorant of Native American histories and the unique relationship and trust responsibility between the United States and Tribal Nations – or that they are aware of it, but they wish to end the trust responsibility and wash their hands clean of history and the responsibilities of America to Tribal Nations.”

The status of the court battle came to a decision on June 5, 2020, that a federal judge ruled in favor of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe against the Trump Administration’s Department of the Interior. The Mashpee Enterprise explains, “The judge, Paul L. Friedman, ordered that the department maintain the reservation status of the tribe’s 321 acres of land until the department issues a new decision on remand over whether the tribe qualified as ‘under federal jurisdiction’ in 1934.” This news is a battle won for Indian Country, but as Cedric Cromwell has said to The Mashpee Enterprise, “While we are pleased with the court’s findings, our work is not done. We will continue to work with the Department of the Interior — and fight them if necessary — to ensure our land remains in trust.”

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