On Wednesday morning, President Donald Trump shot off a tweet that knocked a proposal he characterized as “a special interest casino Bill.”
First, Pocahontas—born Matoaka—was a pre-teen who was kidnapped and raped by colonizers before she was shipped off the England, where she’d die suddenly at 21 years old without ever getting to return to her home. But yes, hilarious dig!
Racist remark aside, the Tweet appeared fairly innocuous—another sloppy message from Trump that would go by the wayside with the thousands of others. This, however, was not the case. As was reported by Indianz.com, both H.R. 312 and H.R. 375—a bill sponsored by Rep. Tom Cole that was touted as a clean fix to the 2009 Supreme Court decision Carcieri v. Salazar, confirming all federally recognized tribes can have their homelands restored through the Department of the Interior’s land-into-trust process—were removed from consideration, after the pair were scheduled to go before the House for a final vote. (The bills were fast-tracked, meaning they needed two-thirds approval from the House rather than a simple majority to pass.)
As Democratic Rep. Raul Grijalva, who chairs the committee on Natural Resources, told Indianz.com, “We needed significant Republican support to get these bills approved today, and apparently the president tweeting a racial slur was compelling enough to give them cold feet.” Grijalva also told Indianz that proponents of the bill are “evaluating our options for other avenues to passage.”
It’s hard to overstate how necessary a clean Carcieri fix is needed—but to understand what that fix is, you have to understand what the Carcieri case is, and to understand what the the Carcieri case is means to understand a sliver of the particulars of H.R. 312 and the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s complicated and messy fight for full federal recognition and a reservation. Since none of that has been debated on the national nightly news or in the pages of the major newspapers, it tracks that the majority of Americans have little-to-no clue what all the hubbub is about. So, let’s take a closer look.
The people of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe have been around the land known as Massachusetts for roughly 12,000 years. You might remember them from one of the three times Native people were mentioned in your public school history class, as they were the tribe that greeted the colonizers at Plymouth Rock.
Fast forwarding a bit, they were among the dozens of tribes left out by the initial rounds of federal recognition efforts made by the U.S. government in the 1930s. The result was that the Mashpee operated as a state-recognized tribe, meaning they had no reservation to be governed by themselves, and no deal with the federal government to ensure their people received sound education and healthcare services. It also meant that any potential money to be made from gaming on said denied reservation land was off limits, as the tribe is forced to adhere to state gambling regulations. (These are all long-standing problems for the hundred-plus state-recognized tribes left in a kind of no-man’s land, including my own, the Sappony.)
In 2007, the Mashpee Wampanoag finally won federal recognition. This purportedly ended a three-decade fight, and would pave the way for the project that would become the First Light Resort & Casino, when the tribe’s application to take the land into trust was approved in September 2015.
Then, residents of the neighboring town of Taunton sued the Department of the Interior, claiming that the department was wrong to take land into trust for the tribe. In 2016, U.S. District Court Judge William Young ruled in their favor, citing the infamous 2009 ruling in Carcieri V. Salazar, which restricted the Interior’s ability to take land into trust on behalf of tribal nations unless they had been federally recognized in 1934, when the law that created this process was passed. In September 2018, the Interior relented and reversed its initial decision, which prompted the Mashpee to sue the Interior to change it back.
Since then, a few members of Congress have been attempting to right the wrongs faced by the Mashpee, though not without heavy resistance from the right.
In January, H.R. 312 was proposed by Rep. Bill Keating of Massachusetts; in a nutshell, the bill states that a tribe’s land cannot be taken away via the courts. From a historical standpoint, court rulings such as those against the Mashpee and the Narragansett (the tribe whose land was taken via Carcieri) harken back to the actions of the United States during the Termination Policy era, in which Native land was stolen (again) and Indigenous people were relocated to cities. (This gave way to a period of Self-Determination Policy, which still aimed for economic and cultural assimilation, but was a smidge more respectful.)
The Keating bill sailed through the House Committee on Natural Resources last week by a vote of 26–10—all of the “No” votes were from Republicans, though three GOP members sided with Democrats, in favor of the tribe. Arizona Republican Rep. Paul Gosar—better known for being extremely messy in public with his own siblings—proposed an amendment that would strip the tribe’s option to open a casino, claiming that would make the legislation easier to pass in a full-chamber vote. In making that argument, Gosar cited recent financial troubles faced by the tribe as a reason they should not be allowed to open a casino.
To be clear, this is a conservative lawmaker attempting to put restrictions on what a sovereign tribal nation can and cannot do, which has always ended poorly for Indigenous nations. It is also true that the tribe has been subjected to a recent bout of corruption, thanks in large part to professional (and convicted) D.C. huckster Jack Abramoff, as well as some recent debt the tribe picked up in what it thought would be a straightforward casino bid.
The gist is that around the turn of this century, the tribe’s former chairman, Glenn Marshall, initially hired a lobbying firm run by Abramoff to help them in their fight for federal recognition. As is the case for most people who associated with Abramoff, this did not end well for Marshall—he was convicted of embezzling tribal funds in 2009, and also of making illegal campaign contributions to members of Congress. (Abramoff himself served 43 months in prison for his role in a giant ring of lobbying corruption, which spanned far beyond Marshall and the Mashpee.)
Regardless, the tribe plowed forward with its plans to open the casino, with its major backer being a company known as Genting, a lobby-loving Malaysia-based casino operator. The company announced in March that it will no longer provide the tribe financial support—leaving the sovereign nation $440 million in debt to the company, per Casino.com—but that it will pay for their legal fees as they fight to overturn the Interior’s decision. However, Genting is paying the law firm Dentons US, which has used some of that money to hire former GOP Rep. Richard Pombo’s lobbying firm, which is also not a particularly good look, given Pombo was pretty tight with Abramoff.
Come the last week of April, an internal effort was initiated within the Mashpee government to recall Council Chairman Cedric Cromwell two years before his current term expires, with members of the Mashpee council opining that Cromwell’s 10-year reign had produced little change from his predecessor. The tribal government’s election committee denied the petitions last week on the grounds that they were signed by people who are not tribal members, so Cromwell remains in power.
Which brings us to today, to Trump, and to the Tweet.
Initially, it was unclear why the president, a long-indebted casino owner himself, felt the need to weigh into the Mashpee’s fight specifically. Trump does boast a disturbing history of opposing tribal casino efforts in the name of personal gratification—in 1993, Trump infamously went in front of Congress to oppose a casino operation by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe, saying “They don’t look like Indians to me,” and adding that they “lucked out with a location between New York and Boston.”
Additionally, as Trump himself mentioned, is that a Democratic presidential candidate—Elizabeth Warren—is a co-sponsor of the effort. Trump has never passed up an opportunity to crack a racist Pocahantas joke about Warren, who bewilderingly took a DNA test last year in an attempt to prove she had Native ancestry.
Given that the president has the attention span of a lightning bug, however, we should probably just call this what it is: another white politician who thinks he knows what’s best for Indian country. Unfortunately, it appears a whole slew of Republicans decided they agree with him, and now Indian Country will again be left out in the cold.
Update 5:54 p.m. E.T.: As first reported by the Associated Press and later confirmed to Splinter by a senior Democratic aide, President Trump’s Tweet opposing H.R. 312 originated from Matthew Schlapp, the chairman of the American Conservative Union and husband of White House strategic communications director Mercedes Schlapp. Matthew Schlapp represents Twin River Management Group, which owns a pair of casinos in Rhode Island.
Yesterday, Schlapp retweeted the following message from Rep. Gosar:
Today, Schlapp posted the following, roughly an hour before Trump’s Tweet:
Update, May 9, 2019, 5:48 p.m. ET: On Thursday, the Mashpee Wampanoag communications manager sent Splinter the following statement from Council Chairman Cedric Cromwell:
“H.R. 312 is not about Senator Elizabeth Warren. H.R. 312 also is not about the developer that has been kind enough to lend the Tribe money to help us survive the inhumane and disgraceful burden that Rhode Island’s Carcieri case has inflicted on landless recognized tribes like ours.
H.R. 312 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.
We are deeply humbled by and grateful for their efforts, particularly in the face of the constant onslaught of misinformation about our Tribe and this bill.
The Mashpee Wampanoag have been working toward the return of our sovereign lands for nearly a half century, and long before enactment of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.
H.R. 312 is about what is right, and about what is just.
I urge our fellow Americans to continue to support the bi-partisan House effort to enact the ‘Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act’ H.R. 312.”
If you have any information on the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe casino project, the recent petitions, or the delaying of the bills, email me.