Sen. Elizabeth Warren slammed the Trump administration after it threw a $1 billion casino project into doubt by ruling the federal government could not take land into trust for a Massachusetts tribe, an issue she has championed as she fights criticism over her disputed claims of Cherokee ancestry.
The Massachusetts Democrat vowed to move forward with legislation after the Bureau of Indian Affairs admitted defeat Friday in its two-year search for a legal avenue to take 320 acres into trust on behalf of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe.
The Interior Department agreed in 2015 to hold land in trust for the tribe, a condition for building the tribal casino, but a year later U.S. District Court Judge William G. Young blocked the decision, ruling that the tribe was recognized about 73 years too late to qualify under the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act.
“The decision by the Trump administration to move forward with denying the Mashpee Wampanoag a right to their ancestral homeland and to keep their reservation is an injustice,” Ms. Warren and Sen. Edward J. Markey, both Massachusetts Democrats, said in a statement.
The senators have sponsored the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act, which would override a 2009 Supreme Court decision, Carcieri v. Salazar, that ruled only tribes recognized as of 1934 qualified for land in trust. The Mashpee did not gain recognition until 2007.
“America has a painful history of systematically ripping apart tribal lands and breaking its word,” said the senators’ statement. “We cannot repeat that history. Today’s action by the Trump Administration is yet another deal the federal government is reneging on with Native Americans, and it underscores why Congress must pass our legislation: so that the Mashpee Wampanoag do not lose their home at the hands of the federal government.”
The dustup offered a role reversal for President Trump, who once built casinos for a living, and Ms. Warren, who previously opposed gambling expansion but has embraced the Mashpee cause as she champions American Indian issues in response to Mr. Trump’s jabbing at her as “Pocahontas.”
David Tennant, attorney for the 25 East Taunton residents who challenged the Interior Department’s original land-in-trust approval, described Friday’s decision by BIA Assistant Secretary Tara Sweeney as “long overdue.”
He also called it “unfair” to cast the decision as political, arguing that Interior officials would have allowed the casino to move forward if it were legally possible.
“It’s so unfair to say, ‘Oh, this is the Trump administration undoing the Obama administration.’ This is the Department of Interior, which has been under the control of career people who have a pro-tribal bias, and they understood for years that the Mashpee weren’t going to be able to prove eligibility under the statute,” Mr. Tennant said.
“They gave them extra time, Hail Marys upon Hail Marys, and finally they ran out of time,” he said. “It was years overdue, but it was correct. They ran out of excuses.”
Mashpee Wampanoag Chairman Cedric Cromwell called the decision “a tremendous blow to our Tribe,” while Taunton Mayor Thomas C. Hoye Jr. urged Congress to pass the legislation allowing the federal government to take the land into trust.
The $1 billion First Light Casino and Resort in Taunton would bring an estimated 3,000 jobs and millions in economic development to the southeast Massachusetts area. About 63 percent of Taunton voters endorsed the casino in a 2012 vote.
“I feel for the Mashpee tribe,” Mr. Hoye said. “We’re going to continue to work to move this forward, and hopefully Congress will do the right thing and step in behalf of this tribe.”
Fighting the Mashpee casino are officials in nearby Brockton, which has also sought to build a casino, and Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, who argued that the legislation sponsored by the Massachusetts delegation would thwart federal court precedent.
The 400,000-square-foot Mashpee resort, funded by the Genting Group of Malaysia, also would compete with multiple casinos less than 30 miles away in neighboring Rhode Island.