When the U.S. Department of Interior formally recognized the Mashpee Indian Tribe, whose ancestors famously received the Pilgrims along the coast of New England in the early 17th century, it represented a righting of a historic injustice for native people everywhere: Finally, the Thanksgiving Day Tribe would be empowered to exercise all the sovereign freedoms it had been denied for hundreds of years.
And for the local communities that surround the tribe’s historic lands, it also represented a dramatic boon to economic prosperity, because with formal government recognition comes the potential for new development, including gaming.
But then government bureaucracy and crony capitalists predictably got in the way.
With overwhelming support from the tribe’s municipal neighbors — nearly 7 in 10 residents of the City of Taunton, Mass., voted in favor of a referendum supporting the reservation’s establishment while the town of Mashpee, Mass., unanimously adopted a city resolution supporting the tribe — the Interior Department took into trust certain property located within the tribe’s historic lands.
The long-sought action conferred on the tribe all the various freedoms bestowed on any federally recognized tribal nation. Rather than giving any special privilege to the tribe, it allowed them to self-govern and administer costly social services to its members that previously the federal and state governments were singularly financing.
But after a lawsuit funded by wealthy out-of-state casino interests challenging the decision on transparently crony capitalist grounds, the Department of Justice has effectively left the tribe in limbo.
For the district that I represent in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, this would mean the loss of thousands of jobs and tens of millions in economic activity and state revenue.
After a decades-long campaign by the tribe and supportive local and federal lawmakers, the tribe immediately put into motion economic development initiatives that would serve its members and the broader area, including a resort that would employ some 7,000 Bay Staters.
Through that project, the tribe, which has long been a good-faith partner to local communities and the state government, committed to spend $30 million in upgrades to the water system and roadways of the City of Taunton and another $65 million annually to the state for local community development initiatives.
Now, due to government indecision, all that and more — like effectively forcing the tribe to shutter its schools and lose millions in housing funding — is in jeopardy.
Fortunately, bipartisan legislation has been introduced in Congress to ensure the tribe is protected, but it has yet to full consideration by either chamber.
The proposal, which is supported by Republican representatives literally from all over the country, from Alaska to New York, from Florida to California, wouldn’t tilt the scales of the market, as the tribe’s opponents contend, or confer any special privilege. But it would remedy bureaucratic inertia that threatens to erase jobs and millions in economic activity.
Here we have an issue on which both sides of the aisle have come together to support the Thanksgiving Day Tribe. The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act is about jobs, sure — but foremost it’s about doing what’s right.
Shaunna O’Connell, a Republican member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, represents the 3rd Bristol District.
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