If the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s proposed $500 million Taunton casino were a boat, it might be described as foundering.
Despite recent pronouncements that Project First Light in Taunton is making significant progress, the evidence points toward a project stalled at both the state and federal levels.
On March 27, Gov. Deval Patrick filed the renegotiated compact he reached with the Mashpee tribe about payments the state would receive from a Taunton casino. The compact requires approval by the full Legislature before it can move on to theBureau of Indian Affairs, which would have 45 days to either approve or reject it.
Last year, the initial compact moved through the Legislature in 2½ weeks. This year, the renegotiated deal has taken 2½ months and counting.
On Tuesday, Lauren Corcoran, a spokesman for Sen. Gale Candaras, D-Wilbraham, co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies, said Candaras “stands ready to report the bill out favorably.”
But Rep. Joseph Wagner, D-Chicopee, the House co-chairman, has made no such proclamation. A staff member said no vote has been scheduled.
Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission is accepting applications from commercial casino developers in Southeastern Massachusetts, ending the tribe’s exclusive hold over the region.
And on the federal level, an Interior Department official said the Bureau of Indian Affairs would decide by “early 2013” if a U.S. Supreme Court decision applies to the tribe’s land-into-trust application. But that has not materialized, even as the year is half over.
The high court ruling, known as the Carcieri decision, calls into question the ability of the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs to take land into trust for tribes recognized after 1934. That’s key because the Mashpee tribe gained recognition in 2007 and must demonstrate that it was under federal jurisdiction before 1934 to have a shot at the 151 acres in Taunton becoming part of its initial reservation.
Judith Shapiro, an attorney for the tribe and land-trust expert, said it would be a mistake to read too much into the BIA’s failure to meet the “early 2013” deadline.
“The department is doing a lot of things and sometimes it makes promises it can’t keep,” she said.
The tribe, as part of its application to have land taken into trust, provided evidence that it believes proves federal jurisdiction, including a 1763 agreement reached with England’s King George III that the tribe says should have been honored by the United States government.
But in March, casino opponents sent an 1899 letter to the BIA they say proves the tribe was then under state, not federal, jurisdiction. In the 1899 document, the then-commissioner of Indian Affairs refers to tribes in the “13 original states” as being “subject to the laws of the several states in which they reside.”
The opponents also say a list of tribes compiled after 1934 that does not include Mashpee.
And now opponents are touting a recent response from the BIA as a major victory.
“(Your) letter and accompanying historical exhibits will be considered by the Department and included in the record for its decision on the tribe’s application,” Michael J. Berrigan, associate solicitor for the BIA, wrote in a May letter.
That’s a huge step, opponents say, given that federal regulations do not provide for public comment on a tribe’s land application except during the environmental review process.
“It tells me they are inclined to say no,” said Michelle Littlefield, a casino opponent who along with six others has done research on the tribe at the National Archives in Waltham.
The tribe’s attempt to prove its ties to Taunton, a key factor in the land application, is based on the history of another tribe, the Pokanokets, Littlefield said. The tribe argues that the Wampanoag nation descended from the Pokanokets, in part, because King Philip’s War in 1675 decimated tribes and forced Indians, including some Mashpee tribe members, out of areas like Taunton.
“This tribe doesn’t deserve land in trust in Taunton, they have no ties to Taunton and they are hijacking another tribe’s history to try to prove those ties,” Littlefield said. “Are they going to share their casino profits with the Pokanokets?”
Middleboro Selectman Allin Frawley, whose opposition to the tribe’s casino plans goes back to the tribe’s failed bid to build a casino in that town in 2007, said the information generated by opponents comes from records the tribe and state have access to and apparently ignored. Much of the information was gleaned from a 1970s land suit brought by the Mashpee Wampanoag against the state that the tribe lost, he said.
Shapiro said the tribe is aware of the documents, but that doesn’t make them correct.
“The fact that the department made a mistake in the past does not require it to make the same mistake in the future,” she said. “I’m confident the tribe has shown through its history that federal jurisdiction was lacking only because the feds were making a mistake by not exercising it.”
by George Brennan