Letter to the Hon. Mitch McConnell, Senate Majority Leader, and the Hon. Charles Schumer, Senate Minority Leader - Kennedy to Senate: Act now to protect Mashpee Wampanoag tribe


Dear Majority Leader McConnell and Minority Leader Schumer,

We are writing to demand that you immediately address the troubling precedent being set by the Department of the Interior (DOI) and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) with respect to the treatment of Native American Tribes and their lands. On Friday March 27, DOI informed the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe that their tribal lands would be disestablished and taken out of federal trust. This act of disestablishing tribal lands in this manner by the federal government is unprecedented and has not been commonplace in the nearly 60 years since the Termination Era. Congress must rectify this grave injustice, and the Senate should take up an immediate voice vote on House-passed legislation to fix this impending crisis.

This past Friday, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Chairman Cedric Cromwell received a call from the BIA at 4 p.m. Expecting to discuss how the federal government might be able to assist the Tribe through the current COVID-19 health pandemic, BIA instead announced it would be disestablishing the reservation without providing any written notification or Record of Decision. Upon further questions in that same phone call, BIA was unable to provide any significant details, timeline, or next steps, leaving the Tribe with far more questions than answers and under a cloud of uncertainty.

The Mashpee Wampanoag tribal people have called this land home for over 12,000 years. Their history predates the United States and they were the tribe who welcomed the Pilgrims in the 17th Century. The Tribe fought the U.S. government for recognition for nearly 40 years before finally becoming a federally recognized tribe in 2007. However, they have remained landless.

In May 2019, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 312, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act, on an overwhelming bipartisan vote. The bill reaffirms the trust status of the approximately 320 acres of Mashpee Wampanoag tribal land located in Massachusetts, that was initially taken into trust by DOI in 2015. It would simply ensure the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe is no longer vulnerable to having its land taken out of trust, and the Tribe is treated equally alongside other Native American tribes so it can care for its members and protect its legacy. On the same day, the House also overwhelmingly passed H.R. 375 that would provide for a broader Carcieri fix establishing which tribes would be recognized under the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act. The Senate should take up both bills now. This action is not without precedent as Congress has previously acted in similar situations to protect other tribal lands, including just last year for the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians.

In February, the First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that DOI lacked the authority when it took Mashpee Wampanoag land into trust in 2015. The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe initiated a separate case against DOI in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia challenging the Department's decision to reverse its own position as it relates to the 2015 taking of the land into trust in the first place. Pursuant to an agreement that the Tribe and DOI reached on March 31, 2020, further action regarding the disestablishment of reservation lands is now subject to a preliminary injunction 45-day pause period.

The clock is now ticking. In the middle of a worldwide pandemic, with the United States struggling to contain the spread of COVID-19, it is highly objectionable that DOI would take such action in the first place. The circumstances in which the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe now find themselves only serves as a reminder of the history of unfair treatment by the federal government with respect to this Tribe. The current situation further demonstrates the systemic way the Mashpee Wampanoag people have suffered unnecessary and indescribable cruelty.

The Senate should act now to pass H.R. 312 and H.R. 375, and finally end the decades of uncertainty and unequal treatment that the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe has been subjected to by the federal government.

Thank you for your attention to this request.