On Sept. 18, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe received notice that the Interior Department will issue a reservation proclamation for the tribe.

Mashpee Chairman Cedric Cromwell: ‘We have Sovereign Land’

Gale Courey Toensing

A reservation proclamation is a beautiful thing.

On Friday, September 18, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, whose ancestors met the first wave of invading English settler colonists to arrive on the shores of Cape Cod almost 400 years ago, received notice that the Interior Department will issue a reservation proclamation announcing that land has been taken into trust for the tribe to create its initial reservation.

Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs Kevin K. Washburn announced Friday that the Interior Department has taken into trust 170 acres of land in the town of Mashpee , Massachusetts, for tribal government, cultural and conservation purposes and 150 acres in trust in the City of Taunton,  Massachusetts, for the purpose of constructing and operating a gaming facility and resort. The lands in both Mashpee and Taunton will become the tribe’s first lands held in trust.

“We have sovereign land! We have sovereign land! We did it! We have our own universe!” Mashpee Chairman Cedric Cromwell shouted exuberantly to an excited crowd of Mashpee citizens who had gathered in the government offices/community center building to hear the good news.

The BIA’s intensely detailed Record of Decision (ROD) explains that a reservation proclamation “makes clear that land acquired in trust is a tribe’s reservation, and clarifies jurisdictional status of the land… Issuance of a reservation proclamation is considered a major Federal action requiring review pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act.

“[…] a reservation proclamation is required by IGRA [Indian Gaming Regulatory Act] to meet its ‘initial reservation’ exception for gaming eligibility. With the issuance of this ROD, and upon meeting the requirements of the Department’s proclamation guidelines, the Department announces its determination that the Mashpee and Taunton Sites are to be proclaimed the tribe’s reservation.”

The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe has a long and continuous history on Cape Cod and in the area.

It was the Mashpee Wampanoag Indians who met the first 102 colonists from England debarking from the Mayflower on November 9 (November 19 by today’s calendar), 1620. It was this Northeastern tribe whose famous ancestors taught the newcomers how to survive in the ”wilderness” of the ”New World” and hosted the settlers at the first Thanksgiving in 1621 after the terrible winter of 1620 – ’21.

And it was the Wampanoag Metacomet, who was also known as King Philip, who rallied his warriors in 1675 to defend their homeland in a courageous but doomed resistance known as King Philip’s War against the superior-armed European settlers-colonists, who had broken established peace agreements and expanded their occupation and expropriation of the Wampanoag homelands.

The tribe has held only fee land for years. Although tribal members celebrated the fact that the tribe now has land upon which to exercise its sovereignty, the moment had a certain irony that was not lost on Cromwell. In addition to being the first tribal nation to come in contact with the foreigners who would soon dispossess them of their ancestral territory, Mashpee have lived on the land since time immemorial. The tribe received federal recognition in 2007.

RELATED: Mashpee Wampanoags’ quest ends with federal acknowledgement

“I mean, think about it – 12,000 years on this land, 40 years working for federal acknowledgment and then we did get reaffirmed in 2007 We’ve come full circle,” Cromwell said.

Not quite, in terms of land re-acquisition, according to Washburn’s letter. “At the time of initial European contact, the tribe’s ancestors occupied all of modem-day Bristol, Barnstable, and Plymouth Counties. Following King Philip’s War, the tribe’s descendants were dispersed and lost much of their land in these areas to English settlers,” Washburn wrote. “This loss of land deprived the tribe of a means to generate economic development to support and care for its members. Consequently, the tribe and its members were relegated to economic poverty, a condition that still persists today. Yet, the tribal community persisted.”

The 170 acres of trust land in Mashpee are not contiguous but rather are broken up into various parcels around the town of Mashpee, which used to belong to the tribe.

“We owned the Town of Mashpee. It was all ours. It was the first Indian-governed town,” Cromwell said.

Asked if the tribe will seek more trust land, Cromwell said, “We plan on taking more land into trust but right now we’re focused on the land we have today and what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it.”

The work ahead seems daunting.

“We have to build infrastructure and we have a resort casino to build in Taunton,” he said. The infrastructure for the community will include projects for the tribe’s elders, housing, health care and education – all the sovereign status things that are so important to our people. We’ve only just begun.”

But Cromwell plans to see it through. He has a keen sense of his destiny as a Mashpee leader that was instilled in him by his mother.

“You know, my mom passed away this year. She was the tribal secretary for 35 years. She always told me I’d be the leader of our people.  She’d say, ‘One day you’re going to go to Washington,’ and ‘One day you’re going to represent our people,’ And I’m doing it, I’m doing it.  I’m straight with my mom and I’m straight with my people. In the light of the Creator we have risen and we’ll continue to rise.”

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