[toc]This time last year, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe was preparing to break ground on its $1 billion First Light Casino in Taunton, Massachusetts.
Once the project got the go-ahead, the tribe put an aggressive timeline in place. The tribe planned to open the casino by the summer of 2017. A hotel and additional retail amenities would launch in 2018.
Legal battles slowed casino construction
But the tribe’s plans to beat MGM and Wynn to the punch in the nascent Massachusetts gaming market quickly ran into a snag.
Taunton resident Michelle Littlefield filed a lawsuit challenging the Department of the Interior’s (DOI) authority to place the tribe’s land into trust. This step is an important part in the process tribes in every state must go through in order to open a casino. The Wilton Rancheria tribe in California went through a similar process earlier this year.
The uncertainty surrounding the lawsuit initially didn’t halt construction. However, it did slow down construction efforts. The construction ground to a halt in July 2016 after US District Court Judge William Young ruled in favor of Littlefield.
Following Judge Young’s ruling, the tribe appealed on two separate grounds. Last week, the door closed on one of the options.
Case centers on tribal land trust
The reason the lawsuit is contesting the land trust is a bit complicated. The simple answer is, for a tribe to obtain a land trust, it needs to have been a federally recognized tribe prior to 1934.
If it doesn’t fall into that category, it has two alternative paths to obtain a land trust.
The US federally recognized the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe in 2007. Since the tribe doesn’t meet the qualifications, the DOI took land into trust it under one of the alternative paths.
The DOI took the tribe’s land into trust because the tribe qualified under Category 2 of the Indian Reorganization Act. The Category 2 designation allows land to be taken into trust if the tribe was “descendants of such members [a federally recognized tribe] who were, on June 1, 1934, residing within the present boundaries of any Indian reservation.”
Court says tribe doesn’t qualify for Category 2
The Littlefield lawsuit contested the tribe’s Category 2 status and the courts agreed.
Last week, the Department of Justice dropped its appeal of Judge Young’s ruling. This pins the tribe’s hopes of building a casino in southeastern Massachusetts on the DOI.
The tribe won’t have to wait long to learn its fate. The DOI announced it will make a decision on June 19.
Mashpee Wampanoag now seeking Category 1 status
The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe is banking on the DOI taking its land into trust under a different rationale; the Category 1 option for taking tribal land into trust.
The second path allows the land to be placed into trust if the tribe was “under federal jurisdiction before 1934.”
A similar case played out recently in Washington state, where the Cowlitz Tribe had its land taken into trust on these grounds.
However, another ruling a bit closer to home went against the Narragansett Tribe in nearby Rhode Island in 2009.
Mashpee Chairman confident DOI will rule in its favor
Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Council Chairman Cedric Cromwell expressed his confidence the Category 1 decision will go the tribe’s way in a press release.
“We are confident that an amended ROD (Record-Of-Decision) from the Interior Department will reaffirm what has already been well-established and documented: we have lived on this land for thousands of years and it is only right that we remain…Now that we have a firm commitment from the Interior Department that a decision is imminent we can focus on preparing to resume work at the site this summer, and putting the frivolous lawsuit filed against the Interior Department last year behind us.”