4/10/2006

Mashpee Wampanoag Win First Round of Recognition

by: Gale Courey Toensing / Indian Country Today

MASHPEE, Mass. - The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, whose ancestors were the first to greet and protect English colonists almost 400 years ago on the shores of what came to be known as North America, has received preliminary acknowledgement from the BIA as a federally recognized Indian tribe.

The 1,468-member tribe was notified of the preliminary decision March 31 at its tribal council office in Mashpee on Cape Cod. A day before the decision was due, tribal members erected a tent and started a spirit fire. Hundreds gathered at the site on decision day to await the news. Many brought tobacco and sage to burn while they offered prayers. There was a day-long picnic with children playing baseball, soccer and football, Glenn Marshall, chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Council, said.

''When the call came there was such an uproar of jubilation heard from our office and our people, it was not to be believed. For all our people now and for all the people who went before me, my mother, my father, my grandmother and all the people we have lost, it was such a culmination of emotions. It was wonderful,'' Marshall said.

It was Mashpee Wampanoag Indians who met the first 102 colonists from England debarking from the Mayflower on Nov. 9 (Nov. 19 by today's calendar), 1620. It was this Northeastern tribe whose famous ancestors taught the newcomers how to survive in the ''wilderness'' and hosted the settlers at the first Thanksgiving in 1621.

''History, in one respect, now comes full circle,'' said Mashpee Wampanoag Chief Vernon Lopez, whose Indian name is Silent Drum.

''Our ancestors, as a sovereign nation, met the Mayflower, and that meeting led to the birth of this great nation. Today, our government has reaffirmed this status and the faith of that first meeting. But in another respect we are today who we were yesterday: the keepers of an important American story, one that was in danger of dying out but has been given a new birth,'' Lopez said.

The proposed positive finding comes 31 years after the tribe filed its letter of intent to seek federal recognition.

The tribe is likely to build a casino off of Cape Cod, but has no concrete plans in the works at the moment, Marshall said.

''If it's available when we're ready, we'll certainly take a look at it. The rules are rigorous and we can only do what's allowed in the laws by the state, so whatever is allowed at that point is what we'll do,'' Marshall said.

''If there was another way to make the money ... whatever it takes to allow this tribe or any tribe not to be under the gun looking for federal government funds - most tribes and tribal chairmen would do that. Everyone wants to regulate Indian gaming, but not non-Indian gaming. Why is that? That's the question,'' Marshall said.

The Mashpees' backer, Herb Strather, has contributed around $15 million to the tribe's quest for federal acknowledgment over the past five or six years of their association.

''He's a real estate guy from Detroit. He's a black man who is a big-time philanthropist who does a lot with Optimist Clubs and churches. He's a real neat guy,'' Marshall said.

Indigenous people have lived in the area since time immemorial: Archaeologists have found local village sites dating back 5,000 years. The tribe has the dubious honor of having had the first reservation in the New World, Marshall said.

''The tribe has a deed for 55 square miles signed by the king of England in 1679, I think,'' Marshall said.

Only a fraction of the land the tribe once used remains - around 110 acres in three separate parcels. Most of its land was taken through eminent domain and tax takings. But the tribe expects some lands will be restored.

''As for outstanding land claims, my people are very, very leery of going to a land court. My people have decided that sometime we'll get what we deserve to get. We have an air base nearby and we'll be able to do some stuff though negotiations with the federal government. We do have some federal land and I think they'll flip it over to us just to keep us quiet,'' Marshall joked.

The BIA ruled that the tribe met all seven criteria required for federal acknowledgement. A final decision will be issued by March 31, 2007, as required by a court-supervised settlement agreement. The tribe, interested parties and the general public have 180 days to comment on the proposed finding from the time it is published in the Federal Register, followed by a 30-day period in which the tribe can respond to the comments.

''We certainly don't have the struggle that our brothers and sisters down in Connecticut have, where you have legislators and an attorney general that are out of touch as far as Indian rights are concerned. It's certainly a long struggle, I know. I hope they make it. I know they deserve it,'' Marshall said, referring to Connecticut's Eastern Pequot and Schaghticoke tribal nations, whose federal acknowledgement was rescinded last October after a campaign of political pressure was exerted on the Interior Department.

Both the local and state governments helped the tribe in its quest for federal status, Marshall said.

''The legislators unanimously voted on support for our federal recognition and urged the federal delegation to help us get federal recognition. That's tremendous,'' Marshall said.

U.S. Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass., confirmed the tribe's political support in his congratulations.

''If patience is a virtue, then the Wampanoags are among the most virtuous people on the face of the earth. This preliminary decision finally begins the end of the 30-year march toward federal recognition. It is, at long last, a clear determination on the merits of the Tribe's petition - and a giant step toward resolution and reconciliation,'' Delahunt said.

Marshall had great praise and thanks for all of the previous chairmen, the team of researchers and lawyers, and all of the tribe's supporters, naming the long list in a phone interview with Indian Country Today.

''At the end of the day, as long as it takes, we're still a tribe, no matter what. We didn't need the federal government to tell us we're a tribe,'' Marshall said.

© Indian Country Today April 10, 2006. All Rights Reserved