Sen. Bernard Sanders has built his career siding with the little guy, but as far as Michelle Littlefield is concerned, he picked the wrong underdog when he sided with the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe in its quest to build a $1 billion casino in her backyard.
The Vermont independent was among those who blasted the Interior Department’s March 30 directive to undo the agency’s 2015 decision to place 321 acres of land into trust for the tribe, a prerequisite for a reservation casino, calling it a “disgraceful decision.”
He was hardly alone. Democrats quickly framed the issue as a struggling tribe versus the Trump administration, even though Ms. Littlefield said that the Interior Department had little choice, given a series of court rulings against the Mashpee and in favor of two dozen residents of working-class Taunton, Massachusetts.
They include Ms. Littlefield, who chafed at what she described as the tribe’s public-relations effort to turn the casino fight into a political issue.
“It’s not a political issue. It’s a legal issue,” she said. “Our voices have never been heard anywhere except in the courts. So we choose to keep our heads low, but we’ve done nothing but win for four years. We’ve been proven to be right in the court of law over and over and over again.”
Their winning streak has yet to be broken. In February, the First Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a federal judge’s 2016 decision overruling Interior’s original pro-tribe decision, citing the 2009 Supreme Court ruling in Carcieri v. Salazar, which held that only tribes recognized at the time of the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act can have land taken into trust.
Interior Secretary David Bernhardt responded by moving to disestablish the tribe’s trust status, “which requires Interior to rescind its earlier decision,” said department spokesman Conner Swanson in a statement.
“This decision does not affect the federal recognition status of the tribe, only Interior’s statutory authority to accept the land in trust. Rescission of the decision will return ownership of the property to the tribe,” Mr. Swanson said.
The Mashpee filed March 31 for a temporary restraining order in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Earlier this week, Interior agreed to hold off on enforcing the directive to take the land out of trust for 45 days, scheduling a telephonic court hearing for May 7.
Mashpee Wampanoag chairman Cedric Cromwell blasted the Interior Department, saying that “the steps being taken right now — in the middle of a nationwide pandemic — to disestablish our reservation and take our land out of trust has created a crisis on top of a crisis.
“We now have no choice but to divert precious resources from COVID-19 to address this unwarranted attack on our sovereignty,” he said.
Meanwhile, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden unloaded last week on Mr. Trump, who has long opposed Indian gaming, saying the administration “has callously reversed the Obama-Biden policies, and abandoned our nation’s treaty obligations to tribal nations.”
Sens. Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts Democrats, ripped what they called the Trump administration’s “cruel injustice,” adding that they would “not allow the Mashpee Wampanoag to lose their homeland.”
“The Mashpee Wampanoag have a right to their ancestral homeland no matter what craven political games the Trump administration tries to play,” said the senators in a statement.
House lawmakers led by Rep. William Keating, Massachusetts Democrat, urged the Senate leadership in an April 3 letter to take up legislation passed by the House last year that would grant a Carcieri exception for the Mashpee, allowing the tribe to take the 321 acres into trust.
While Democrats were quick to blast Mr. Trump over the Interior order, the Mashpee Wampanoag reservation debate has long crossed party lines. The House letter was signed by two Republicans, Reps. Tom Cole of Oklahoma and Don Young of Alaska, who support the tribe’s reservation claims.
On the other side of the aisle, Rhode Island Democrats, including Gov. Gina Raimondo, have fought the Mashpee’s land-in-trust bid, given that it would allow construction of a massive gaming facility that would compete with their state’s casinos.
Rush Street Gaming, a competing casino company, had previously paid the legal fees for the Taunton plaintiffs, while the Genting Group has sunk $440 million into the battle to build the casino on 151 acres of tribe-owned land in Taunton. The tribe also owns 171 acres on Cape Cod in Mashpee.
In 2018, Genting reported a $440 million loss associated with the tribal casino project. The company continues to finance the legal battle but no longer funds tribal operations, the Cape Cod Times reported last year.
“The tribe has had literally hundreds of millions of dollars of Malaysian money to play with for the last eight years,” Ms. Littlefield said. “They have the ability to spin and sway the court of public opinion. And fortunately for us, that’s not where decisions are made. Decisions are made in a court of law.”
The tribe originally sought to establish reservations in Middleboro and Fall River before settling on Taunton, leading to accusations of “reservation shopping.”
Foes said the tribe could have established a reservation on the 170 tribal-owned acres in Mashpee, located on Cape Cod about 50 miles from Taunton, but in a 2008 agreement approved by Mashpee voters, the tribe agreed not to pursue gaming in the town.
Ms. Littlefield pointed out that as a Taunton resident, she would have had no standing to sue if the tribe had only attempted to take land into trust in Mashpee, given that “nobody in Mashpee ever took action to fight them.”
“We’ve always said it was a completely self-created hardship,” said David Tennant, attorney for the Taunton plaintiffs. “They could have had their land in Mashpee, there wouldn’t have been any challenge, they would have had their government center, their cemeteries, their cultural centers, everything would be on trust land now and they would have a reservation — but for their greed in going 50 miles inland and trying to build a casino.”
Mr. Cromwell rejected suggestions that the land-in-trust push was casino-focused, calling the property “an essential connection to our culture and heritage” that supports a school, health care and housing for the tribe’s 2,900 members.
“The federal government placed land in trust in both Taunton and Mashpee because it’s part of our ancestral homeland, and any insinuation that this is about economic development is baseless,” Mr. Cromwell said in a statement. “Losing our reservation will usher in a new era of cultural genocide on my people, and we refuse to give up our fight for our land, our culture or our heritage.”
Ms. Littlefield said she wished the tribal leadership would abandon the Taunton effort and focus on its members.
“Their tribe is hurting, and they’ve spent $500 million in the last eight years chasing something that they knew they couldn’t have legally,” she said. “They’ve been told this over and over and over.”