MASHPEE, Mass. - The U.S. Department of the Interior has reversed a Trump administration order that rescinded the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe's right to 321 acres of reservation land that helped establish the tribe as a sovereign government.
The land had been held by the U.S. government for the sovereign use of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe since 2015, when the federal government declared hundreds of acres in Massachusetts the tribe's reservation.
If the Trump administration order had stood, about 170 acres of reservation land in Taunton, Mass., would have been earmarked for the building of a casino.
"I think it is important for people to understand that the land was still in trust. Trump tried to take it away, but this reaffirms that (it remains in trust)," said Brian Weeden, chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Council.
Just as the pandemic reached the U.S. in March 2020, then-Mashpee Wampanoag chairman Cedric Cromwell learned in a phone call that Trump's Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt had ordered the tribe's land taken out of trust and the reservation disestablished.
At the time, Cromwell said "we've been dropped off into a new world we've never seen before" and it felt like "direct, hard-core blow to dissolving and disestablishing the tribe."
The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, which has inhabited Massachusetts and parts of Rhode Island for thousands of years, is known for supposedly helping English pilgrim settlers during the first year after their arrival at Plymouth, Mass., in 1620.
A series of state and federal court decisions on whether the land could be put into a trust and whether the Mashpee tribe qualified as a tribe placed the case back in the hands of the Interior Department for a decision.
The tribe gained a powerful ally when President Joe Biden appointee Rep. Deb Haaland became the first Native American to serve as interior secretary. She had worked alongside Rep. William Keating, D-Mass., during the Trump administration to help pass bills to protect Mashpee Wampanoag's reservation lands.
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Keating said the decision Wednesday was historic in terms of avoiding what could have been "for all practical purposes, the extinction of the Tribe of the First Light, the tribe that dealt with the Pilgrims."
"This news is so welcome, so important and it strikes a blow for justice in a history marred by this country's treatment of Native Americans," Keating said. "A decision to the contrary would have perpetuated clearly what was a darker moment in our country's history."
Keating said that without the land the Mashpee tribe would also not be able to access funds from the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill recently signed by Biden.
"There are great opportunities for the tribe to pursue much needed infrastructure funding that would have been more difficult without this decision," Keating said.
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This article originally appeared on Cape Cod Times: Mashpee Wampanoag tribe can keep land Trump tried to take away