Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse and Jack Reed, Rhode Island Democrats, threatened in a letter to Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer to block the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act from reaching the Senate floor.
“We respectfully request that this legislation not advance to the Senate floor for consideration,” said the July 11 letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times. “We will be obliged to use all avenues to block this legislation if there is an attempt to move it.”
Their opposition came as an ill omen for the tribe as it resumed this week its longstanding campaign to build a $1 billion resort in Taunton, Massachusetts.
Reps. William Keating and Joe Kennedy III, Massachusetts Democrats, reintroduced Monday a bill to override a 2016 federal court decision that barred the Interior Department from taking 321 acres into trust on behalf of the Mashpee Wampanoag, a prerequisite for tribal gaming.
The Mashpee received federal recognition in 2007, but only tribes recognized as of the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act may have land taken into trust for a reservation. Tribes and their wholly owned corporations are also exempt from federal income taxes.
“We are extremely grateful that a bipartisan group of Congressional representatives understands the injustice of taking sovereign land away from the first Americans and have moved swiftly to ensure this nation does not return to the dark days of removing indigenous people from their land,” said Mashpee chairman Cedric Cromwell in a Monday statement on Native News Online.
The First Light Resort & Casino, backed by Malaysia’s Genting Group, has faced opposition both from a group of 25 East Taunton residents, who filed the successful federal lawsuit, and Rhode Island officials, who worry that the massive project will divert tens of millions from their Twin Rivers casinos.
Ms. Warren, who had previously opposed gaming expansion, jumped into the fray last year by cosponsoring legislation with Sen. Edward Markey, Massachusetts Democrat, but the issue has pitted them against their close-knit allies in the Rhode Island delegation.
In their letter, Mr. Reed and Mr. Whitehouse said the Mashpee reservation bill, if passed, would open the floodgates to Rhode Island tribes seeking to leapfrog state law with congressional action.
“As a result, federally recognized tribes in Rhode Island would argue that they hold the same standing as the Massachusetts tribe and request that similar legislation be introduced on their behalf,” said the senators. “As you know, we have long opposed doing so due to potential conflicts with the 1978 Rhode Island Indian Claims Settlement Act, which ensures that settlement lands remain subject to Rhode Island state law.”
Efforts to insert the Mashpee language in a continuing resolution as the congressional session drew to a close last month failed, although the tactic may be tried again this year via another funding mechanism.
Construction on the casino was halted after the federal ruling in July 2016, and the delay has delivered a financial hit to both the tribe and Genting, which announced last month a $440 million loss associated with the project.
Meanwhile, the Mashpee, a tribe of about 2,600, has laid off workers and cut their budget amid uncertainty over the casino. Several tribal leaders opted last month to forgo salaries, according to the Mashpee Enterprise.
“A year of setbacks for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe,” said a Dec. 30 headline in The Cape Cod Times.
Mr. Cromwell said in his statement that with “our limited resources dwindling, we have already had to cut back on vital services and programs we had established to serve our Tribal citizens. Should we lose our reservation, our ability to operate as a Tribal government would be crushed.”
No Senate companion legislation had been introduced as of Thursday. Ms. Warren, who has launched an exploratory committee for a 2020 Democratic presidential bid, became involved with the issue last year amid criticism over her claims of American Indian ancestry.
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