What is House Bill H.R. 312?
Cost of House Bill H.R. 312
In-Depth: Sponsoring Rep. William Keating (D-MA) reintroduced this bill from the 115th Congress to reinforce the Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) signed between the town of Mashpee and the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe in 2008.
In testimony to the House Committee on Natural Resources Committee’s Subcommittee on Indigenous Peoples of the United States on April 3, 2019, Jessie Little Doe Baird, Vice Chairwoman of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, expressed the tribe’s support for this bill:
“Our Tribe is suffering from the assault on our reservation and on our very status as Indians. For this reason we urge swift passage of the bipartisan bill H.R. 312, the ‘Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act.’ The damage done to our Tribe during the years in which the status of our reservation has been thrown into doubt is beginning to reach catastrophic levels. Accordingly, we urge Congress to treat Mashpee fairly, and to act with all due haste to protect our reservation from further assault… Since time immemorial, the Mashpee Wampanoag and the land upon which we were placed by Creator have been inseparable. We are one and the same. This fact is no less true today than it was some 400 years ago when the Wampanoag granted Indian land title to the Pilgrims -- the land they used to form Plymouth Colony. Yet by the time our federal recognition was restored to us in 2007, we were a landless tribe with no federal reservation. This is in part because we are the only federally recognized tribe in New England for which Congress has not enacted legislation providing for a federally- protected reservation. For this reason, the Tribe had to rely on the general authority to acquire land in trust and proclaim reservations that Congress gave to the Secretary of the Interior in the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA). Through enactment of H.R. 312 Congress would finally act for Mashpee too, placing us, finally, on an equal footing with other federally recognized tribes… The purpose of the Mashpee Wampanoag Reservation Reaffirmation Act is to reaffirm the status of the Tribe’s reservation and ensure that the Tribe will not be treated as some kind of second class tribe that has a lesser status under the IRA than other federally recognized tribes. This is a bipartisan bill with the singular, straightforward purpose of protecting our reservation.”
In testimony to the House Committee on Natural Resources Committee’s Subcommittee on Indigenous Peoples of the United States on April 3, 2019, Claire Richards, Executive Council to Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo, testified in opposition to this bill:
“Congress enacted the IRA to authorize the Secretary of the Interior to take land in trust for Indians. 25 U.S.C. § 5108. By its express terms, however, the IRA authorizes such fee-to-trust acquisitions only for those Indian tribes under federal jurisdiction as of 1934… In 2015, the Secretary took land into trust for the Mashpee to operate a resort casino in Taunton, Massachusetts, even though the Mashpee were not under federal jurisdiction as of 1934. The Secretary’s decision violated the IRA and was an effort to sidestep Carcieri; it was quickly struck down by a Massachusetts federal court in Littlefield v. U.S. Dep’t of the Interior… [which] held that the Secretary’s decision to take the Taunton land in trust was wrong based on the plain language of the IRA. Responding to the Secretary’s argument that certain provisions of the IRA were ambiguous and therefore permitted her to convert the Taunton land to trust, the Court replied: ‘[w]ith respect, this is not a close call: to find ambiguity here would be to find it everywhere.’ [The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act] resurrects and summarily affirms this erroneous interpretation of the IRA. In so doing, it undermines the established statutory scheme for acquiring trust lands for Indians, as well as the Supreme Court’s decision in Carcieri. It nullifies Littlefield and upends the current view of the Department of Interior itself. All conclude that the Secretary is not authorized to take land into trust for the Mashpee or any other tribe that was not under federal jurisdiction as of 1934. The [bill] – and the faulty rationale upon which it is premised – will open the door to other fee-to-trust conversions in states, like Rhode Island, whose tribes are also excluded from the trust provisions of the IRA. Federally recognized tribes in these states will argue that they stand in no different position from the Mashpee and that the Secretary’s discredited rationale should apply to them as well. Federal trust acquisitions can have serious consequences for states. They strip states of their jurisdiction over land, they encourage tax free and tax-advantaged sales on trust property and they give rise to complex jurisdictional 'checkerboarding' problems. And, the acquisition of land in trust is often a necessary precondition to the establishment of a federal Indian casino… Because of their effect on surrounding jurisdictions, trust acquisitions should strictly conform to the plain language of, and limitations set forth in, the IRA. They should follow an orderly and established vetting process which includes consideration of the impact on neighboring states. They should not be based on a firmly discredited legal rationale to which even the current Secretary of the Interior does not adhere.”
Rhode Island politicians believe the Mashpee’s proposed casino would unfairly compete with legal gambling operations in their state. Rhode Island government officials and the owners of Twin River Casino have expressed concern that this bill could cost Rhode Island millions in gambling revenues if the Taunton casino materializes.
Thus, the Rhode Island Congressional delegation has expressed its opposition to this bill. Through a spokesman, Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) has called this bill “bad for Rhode Island.” He’s also said that he’s “strongly communicated to his colleagues [Rhode Island’s] concerns and opposition.” Likewise, a spokesman for Rep. James Langevin (D-RI) has stated Rep. Langevin’s plans to oppose this bill when it comes up for a vote.
When this bill was introduced in the 115th Congress, Michelle Littlefield, the lead plaintiff in the case against the Mashpee and a resident of the town where the tribe’s proposed casino is planned, said the decision against the tribe was clear and shouldn’t be challenged. She said, “It should be stressed that this tribe lost in court in a strongly worded decision. Obviously this is just a Hail Mary pass because they have failed at every possible level.”
The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah)— a sister tribe of the Mashpee tribe — declared its opposition to this bill in a January 22, 2019 letter to the Massachusetts Gaming Commission. In that letter, Aquinnah Tribe Chairwoman Chery Andrews-Maltais argued that this bill would have a “very real potential to have a serious adverse effect” on her tribe’s ability to acquire additional land within the Wampanoag Nation’s ancestral territory.
President Trump expressed his opposition to this bill in a May 8, 2019 tweet which caused this bill’s sponsors to pull it from the House floor: He tweeted, “Republicans shouldn’t vote for H.R. 312, a special interest casino Bill, backed by Elizabeth (Pocahontas) Warren. It is unfair and doesn’t treat Native Americans equally!”
Mashpee Tribal Chairman Cedric Cromwell responded to Trump’s tweet with his own, tweeting:
“The Mashpee Wampanoag have been working toward the return of our sovereign lands for nearly a half century. [The bill] is a deeply honorable legislative effort by both Republican and Democratic members of the House of Representatives to correct the significant wrongs that have been perpetrated against our Tribe over the years, and to ensure that our people have a chance to be self-sufficient."
This bill passed the House Committee on Natural Resources by a 26-10 vote with the support of 35 bipartisan cosponsors, including 29 Democrats and six Republicans. When it was originally reintroduced in January, House lawmakers attempted to fast-track it to a vote on it under a suspension of the rules to expedite non-controversial bills; however, since the effort was unsuccessful, it’s now being considered under regular order.
In the 115th Congress, this bill had 23 bipartisan House cosponsors, including 15 Democrats and eight Republicans, and didn’t receive a committee vote. A Senate version, introduced by Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA) with one cosponsor, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), also didn’t see committee action last Congress.
Of Note: In 2016, neighbors of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s proposed $1 billion casino in Taunton, Massachusetts brought a lawsuit challenging the development in the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts. In that suit, the judge ruled that the Secretary of the Interior didn’t have the authority to take the land into trust because the tribe wasn’t under federal jurisdiction at the time of the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act in 1934, and therefore didn’t satisfy the legal definition of “Indian.”
On September 7, 2018, the Dept. of the Interior issued its first Carcieri decision refusing to reaffirm its own authority to confirm the status of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s reservation. This decision, which followed the federal government’s refusal to continue defending the status of the tribe’s reservation in court, opened the door for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s reservation to be taken out of trust and disestablished.
The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe reports that, as a result of its reservation’s uncertain status, they’ve been forced to borrow “thousands of dollars every day to keep basic government functions running,” causing the tribal government economic uncertainty and forcing it to lay off 41% of its workforce. In testimony to the House Committee on Natural Resources Committee’s Subcommittee on Indigenous Peoples of the United States on April 3, 2019, the tribe listed a number of current and potential future consequences stemming from Interior’s decision:
“Tribal unemployment is on the rise. The Tribe has been forced to shut down or severely scale back many vital government programs. For example, the Tribe essentially has had to dissolve its police force with the exception of one patrol officer and we have had to reduce tribal court staff. Presently, we have 43 homes under construction on our reservation lands that will be lost if our reservation goes out trust -- this will be devastating given our severe housing shortage. We have also faced the loss of federal funding that allows us to partner with the Town of Mashpee to our shared water ways and forests. This funding loss has cost the Tribe an estimated $1.2 million to carry out our natural resources development initiatives and programs in conjunction with the Town of Mashpee. Particularly painful, we have had to shut down our critically needed addiction treatment services programs at a time when Wampanoag people are 400 times more likely to die of an opioid overdose than non-Wampanoag people. Our nationally recognized Wampanoag language immersion school serves preschool and school aged children with a planned expansion to fourth grade. Because this school is situated on reservation lands, the removal of trust status while not only disrupt the curriculum but also the children that have been attending since the age of four. Presently, the Tribe suffers from having only a 51% high school graduation rate. Our language immersion school is vital to increasing our citizens’ graduation rate and reducing substance abuse and suicide rates. These are only a few examples of the desperately needed tribal government programs that Mashpee has been forced to drastically scale back or completely shut down. Finally, if the Department acts to take Mashpee’s reservation out of the trust, not only will Mashpee lose its jurisdiction over the land and have to further reduce tribal programs, Mashpee will also likely lose the land itself as a result of not being able to pay state taxes on the 321 acres.”
The casino would be called the First Light Resort & Casino and located in Taunton, Massachusetts. It’d include a brick and mortar gaming venue featuring 3,000 slot machines, 40 poker tables and 15 game tables, as well as three hotels, entertainment spaces, restaurants, a shopping center, and a water park.
The Supreme Court’s 2009 decision in Carcieri v. Salazar ruled the Secretary of the Interior’s effort to take 31 acres of land into trust for the Narragansett Tribe of Rhode Island into trust for a housing project unlawful. The decision laid the ground for making distinctions between tribes, making some tribes unable to petition to federal government to have land restored to them through the land into trust process.
- Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Vice Chairwoman Jessie Little Doe Baird Testimony to the House Committee on Natural Resources Committee’s Subcommittee on Indigenous Peoples of the United States (In Favor)
- Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Chairman Cedric Cromwell Update to Tribal Citizens (In Favor, 115th Congress)
- Claire Richards, Executive Counsel to Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo, Testimony to the House Committee on Natural Resources Committee’s Subcommittee on Indigenous Peoples of the United States (Opposed)
- Wicked Local Middleton
- The Mashpee Enterprise
- Providence Journal
- WBUR News
Summary by Lorelei Yang(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / jocrebbin)
Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act
To reaffirm the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe reservation, and for other purposes.
- Not enactedThe President has not signed this bill
- The senate has not voted
- The house Passed May 15th, 2019Roll Call Vote 275 Yea / 146 Nay
For Indigenous Peoples of the United StatesCommittee on Natural ResourcesIntroducedJanuary 8th, 2019
- house Committees