An Indigenous Tribe That Has Lived on Cape Cod for 10,000 Years Is Now Under Threat

And the Trump Administration — surprise, surprise — is right in the middle of it

An Indigenous Tribe That Has Lived on Cape Cod for 10,000 Years Is Now Under Threat
(Photo by Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

In 2009, the Supreme Court passed a confusing ruling in a case called Carcieri v. Salazar. In an effort to determine whether land federally recognized by the Narragansett people in the late 20th century was legitimate, the Court reexamined language established way back during the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, specifically the phrase “now under Federal jurisdiction.” The Court’s holding was that the government could not take into trust any land from tribes recognized after 1934.

That “now” has caused America’s indigenous people serious consternation in recent years. At a basic level, it’s given the government cause to throw its hands up in the air, and discard responsibility; on a more pernicious plane, it’s given the Trump Administration the legal backing it needs to revoke the reservation status of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, an indigenous people who have lived on Cape Cod for over 10,000 years. They were there on Massachusetts’s coastline before the pilgrims arrived, and it took until 2015 for them to be placed into trust, after the Obama administration scrapped together a post-Carcieri framework.

But the Trump Administration, unsurprisingly, does not respect that framework, and legally speaking, doesn’t have to. The Interior Department (which includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs) threatened way back in 2018 that it did not consider the Mashpee Wampanoag under federal jurisdiction. Now, it’s official. The tribe’s 321 acres of land have been taken out of the federal trust, effectively ending any governing power the Mashpee Wampanoag have over a land they’ve been on since the woolly mammoth still roamed the planet.

The Mashpee Wampanoag are understandably distraught. That this edict has come through during the COVID-19 pandemic, which is beginning to rampage through Native American reservations, makes it unfathomably cruel. The only way forward, on top of admirably eloquent public statements, is for the tribe’s land to be taken into trust by acts of Congress. That could prove difficult — Trump’s friends in Washington reportedly have interest in casinos in Rhode Island, and are worried that a casino on Mashpee Wampanoag land would be competitive (seriously, more often than not, the driving forces behind these headlines are a awful movie plot)  — but there’s a chance. Eighteen members of the House of Representatives just sent a letter pushing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Charles Schumer to reinstate the tribe’s trust status.

Until then, in an age of stunning uncertainty, Mashpee Wampanoag face an age-old one: the whims and greed of those who want their land, no matter how small it seems to become.

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