Washington, DC – A Native American tribe is calling on members of Congress to help protect the status of its reservation after the Trump administration reversed an Obama-era decision to hold its land in trust.
Former President Barack Obama’s administration took the land of the Mashpee into trust in 2015, giving the tribe jurisdiction over the reservation, which is located in Massachusetts.
Less than a year later, a judge ruled that the Obama administration had acted outside of its remit in entrusting the reservation to the federal government.
That ruling was based on a controversial reading of the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, which does not qualify the Mashpee as “Indian”.
In September, the US Department of Interior, under the Trump administration, decided not to challenge the ruling. The tribe then filed a lawsuit against the administration, saying its decision was “arbitrary, capricious and contrary to law, and if left unaddressed, will have a devastating impact on the tribe”, according to local media.
On Wednesday, members of the tribe and supporters from across the US gathered at the Capitol to call on Congress to use its plenary powers to pass legislation that would override the Department of the Interior’s authority on the issue.
If Congress does not pass legislation protecting the tribe and the legal challenge fails, the Mashpee would be stripped of their right to exercise sovereign jurisdiction over their land.
Jessie Little Doe Baird, the tribe’s vice-chairwoman, told Al Jazeera that loss of jurisdiction would prevent the tribe from running indigenous language schools, tribal courts, and housing projects, as well as its own police.
“We have our own police force, which is important because they’re tribal citizens and since we’ve had our own police force, none of our men have been beaten or shot, which we’ve had before with non-tribal police,” she said.
Baird, an MIT-trained linguist who has played a pivotal role in reviving the Wampanoag language, said she feared the government’s decision was the first step in a gradual encroachment on the sovereignty of Native American reservations.
The Mashpee have the support of Native American organisations from across the country and Wednesday’s action on the Capitol drew speakers from different tribes.
Members of the Mashpee’s wider Wampanoag tribe were the first to greet the pilgrims in the 17th century, and the American holiday of Thanksgiving has its roots in meals shared between the tribe and early English settlers.
Mashpee member Cameron Frye called the tribe’s recent experience “disheartening”.
“We’re the tribe that greeted the pilgrims, everybody knows about Thanksgiving,” he said, adding, “We’re the tribe that welcomed them and greeted them but here we are still fighting to protect our sovereignty.”
We're the tribe that greeted the pilgrims, everybody knows about Thanksgiving. We're the tribe that welcomed them and greeted them but here we are still fighting to protect our sovereignty.
Frye feared that if left unchallenged, the decision would set a precedent for future government action against other Native American tribes.
“Under this administration, it’s very frightening for all tribes, not just our own … If they can do this to us then they can do this to other tribes.”
Members of Congress in both the House of Representative and the Senate have introduced bills to reaffirm the decision to take the Mashpee’s land into federal trust.
If passed, the Mashpee Reservation Reaffirmation Act would supersede the court ruling preventing the original Obama-era decision.
Massachusetts congressmen Bill Keating and Joe Kennedy were present at the Capitol on Wednesday to show their support for the tribe. The pair are Democrats but the Mashpee cause has drawn bipartisan support.
“We shouldn’t have to be doing this,” said Keating, who authored the House bill.
“The administration has taken a decision to make one decision and Congress is here to try to straighten that out.
“This is an existential issue, this is about the existence of this tribe, it’s that fundamental.”