Sen. Elizabeth Warren has upped the ante on her Indian gaming gamble, defending her bill to clear the way for a Massachusetts tribal casino as she fights to overcome her “Pocahontas” problem.
In a joint statement, she and Sen. Edward Markey, both Massachusetts Democrats, said Thursday that the legislation introduced in March was aimed at protecting the Mashpee Wampanoag reservation, but made no mention of the gaming issue.
“Our bill is about recognizing the Mashpee Wampanoag tribal homelands and the tribe’s right to keep their reservation,” the statement said. “The federal government should not renege on yet another deal with Native Americans.”
The Mashpee gained federal recognition in 2007 after hiring lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who was convicted of fraud and bribery in the Indian gaming scandal, but a federal judge ruled in 2016 that the Bureau of Indian Affairs could not take land into trust on behalf of the tribe.
The ruling stopped construction on the $1 billion First Light Casino and Resort in Taunton, putting at risk the $400 million investment by the Malaysian firm Genting Group, which is bankrolling the project on behalf of the 2,600-member tribe.
Ms. Warren’s decision to weigh in on behalf of the tribe comes as she tries to shake the “Pocahontas” label by embracing Native American issues ahead of a possible 2020 presidential run.
Getting behind the Mashpee casino isn’t a risk-free political bet, however, given her past opposition to gambling, the tribe’s ties to “Casino Jack” Abramoff, and Genting’s involvement in a growing Malaysian corruption scandal.
In a Thursday op-ed, Boston Herald columnist Michael Graham asked why Ms. Warren, a well-known progressive crusader against “corporate greed,” would “make this stand with the Mashpees and their sketchy casino deal.”
“How did Liz Warren go from ‘You didn’t build that’ to ‘I’m gonna help you build that — with money from corrupt casino companies!’?” Mr. Graham wrote. “It seems like an awful lot of work to get over the ‘Fauxcahontas’ flap.”
He added, “Sen. Warren, wouldn’t it be easier to just admit you were wrong?”
Ms. Warren has denied that she benefited professionally from claiming Cherokee heritage as a professor at Harvard Law School even though she is not an enrolled member of any tribe.
The issue has dogged her 2018 re-election bid as critics call on her to take a DNA test to back up her ancestry claims, which she has attributed to her family lore growing up in Oklahoma.
President Trump has drawn attention to the issue by repeatedly dinging her as “Pocahontas,” a nickname that has stuck.
Her bill, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act, was assigned March 22 to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, but so far there has been no action on the measure or its House companion.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs is reviewing a request to take the tribe’s land into trust through an alternate legal framework, which would allow the tribe to build the casino without violating the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act.