This Land is Their Land

Federal government continues tradition of theft

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Illustration by Alexeonna Lewis.

If threatening the livelihoods of marginalized people in this country is a checklist, President Donald Trump has checked most every box — and now he’s going for the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe.

As of Sept. 7, the federal administration is trying to take away 321 acres of land from the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, also known as People of the First Light. The tribe has legally owned the land since 2015 but occupied it for more than 12,000  years.

The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe is one of three surviving tribes out of the original 69 forming the robust Wampanoag Nation, whose land the pilgrims famously landed on in present day Massachusetts. The Mashpee have since lost their land at least three times — the second by accident, due to a bookkeeping error where they were left off a list of tribes, and again when Massachusetts eliminated their district in the 19th century.

A 30-year legal battle, beginning in 1976, restored the Mashpee to “official tribe status” in 2007. After filing their land claims in 2008, the Mashpee had to wait another six years before being granted the land trust in 2015.

According to the U.S. government, the tribe does not fall under “federal jurisdiction” by the definition established in the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. Thus, its official status as a federally recognized tribe can be annulled, which would prevent tribe members from building Indigenous language schools, tribal courts and housing projects — essential social gathering places and basic needs.

When the Mashpee announced their plans to open a casino on their land in 2012, conflict with the town nearby arose. Led by non-Native Michelle Littlefield, the locals cited traffic, proximity to an elementary school and the tribe’s closure of an industrial park on the land as reasons against its construction. However, a referendum gave approval for the casino the following year.

The federal administration is wrong to weigh the benefits of giving the Natives their land back against making a small profit off of taxes. It is especially wrong to consider the latter more important.

In 2015, the Department of Interior approved the Land in Trust application for initial reservation status, allowing the Mashpee Tribe to begin reacquiring its land. Since then, the Trump administration reversed the approval, and the tribe is in danger of losing its land once again.

The Mashpee Wampanoag people have an undeniable claim to their land. Colonists seized their land long ago, and anything short of the best effort to return it to them is an embarrassment to the  nation.

U.S. District Court Judge William G. Young ruled in 2015 the Interior Department did not have the authority to entrust land for the tribe, at least in the way it had made its decision. Judge Young, however, provided an avenue for the department to revise its decision by using a different definition of “Indian.”

Privilege in the United States is an ugly stepladder of systematic oppression founded on the backs of people of color. White pilgrims would have died if not for the Wampanoag nation saving them from starvation. Colonizers’ subsequent betrayal and cruelty toward the Wampanoag and other Native Americans has continued to this day, with Trump now leading the charge to dismantle their rights.

Despite vocal opposition from the tribe and members of the greater public, the U.S. Department of Interior refused to challenge the ruling. And why would it, if the government gains nothing by giving it  back?

In response to federal apathy, the tribe 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 outlet Cape News. The administration has yet to respond.

In addition to the lawsuit, the tribe is pushing for Congress to pass Bill HR 5244 and Senate lobbying bill S-2628, which would overturn the previous ruling and reaffirm the land trust. The bill is moving quickly through the House due to its thin breadth, and is receiving strong bipartisan support, which gives new hope to the tribe despite the current  administration.

The Native American community is resilient, but if the constant barrage of destruction on the lives of Indigenous peoples around the country does not cease, it will be difficult for them to heal from generations of pain.

The least we can do is fight for these reparations, and we can help by urging our legislators to support the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s rights to its land. Call your legislators, write letters to them, ask them to protect the Mashpee Reservation and demand the passage of congressional bills HR 5244 and S-2628.

Time does not heal all wounds. Return the land to the people who belong there and let them exist in peace.