Published March 28, 2020
TAUNTON, Mass. — In the midst of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on his tribe, Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Chairman Cedric Cromwell says he was informed late Friday afternoon by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), on orders of the Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior David Bernhardt, that the tribe’s “reservation be disestablished.”
“At 4:00 pm today — on the very day that the United States has reached a record 100,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and our Tribe is desperately struggling with responding to this devastating pandemic — the Bureau of Indian Affairs informed me that the Secretary of the Interior has ordered that our reservation be disestablished and that our land be taken out of trust. Not since the termination era of the mid-twentieth century has a Secretary taken action to disestablish a reservation,” Cromwell writes in a statement that was posted online Friday evening.
The order would take the 321 acres of land that was put into trust during the Obama administration in September 2015 out of trust land status. The Obama decision was reversed by the Trump administration three years later in September 2018.
Since the September 2018 Interior ruling, the tribe has been involved in two separate lawsuits to resolve the issue. Late last month, the First Circuit Court in Boston ruled against the tribe in its battle to get land the tribe owns back in trust. Another case in Washington, D.C. federal court is still pending.
“The Secretary is under no court order to take our land out of trust. He is fully aware that litigation to uphold our status as a tribe eligible for the benefits of the Indian Reorganization Act is ongoing,” Cromwell said in his statement.
Cromwell further asked in his statement, “it begs the question, what is driving our federal trustee’s crusade against our reservation?”
In an email to the BIA, Native News Online requested a copy of the order by the Interior secretary and a comment. There was no response by press time.
A spokesperson for the DOI told the Boston NPR affiliate WBUR that the tribe remains federally recognized, and that there was a court decision mandating the department’s action.
In the fall of 2015, the DOI issued a decision approving a trust acquisition for the Tribe, Conner Swanson, a Interior spokesperson, told WBUR. Subsequently, both a federal district court and a federal circuit court panel found there to be no statutory authority for this decision. The Tribe did not petition for a panel rehearing or a rehearing before a panel of judges.
“On March 19th, the court of appeals issued its mandate, which requires Interior to rescind its earlier decision. 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,” Swanson told WBUR.
This is a developing story. Native News Online will provide more information when it becomes available.
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