The U.S. Department of Justice is standing by the Bureau of Indian Affair’s (BIA) decision in September which granted the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s land-into-trust application for 151 acres in Taunton for the tribe’s Project First Light Resort & Casino.
In the ongoing legal battle over the Massachusetts casino, on Thursday attorneys for the government said that the BIA correctly determined that in 1934 the Mashpee Wampanoag people were living on a reservation despite the fact that the tribe’s formal relationship with the government wasn’t confirmed until 2007. In a 34-page brief, the administration wrote, “[T]he record demonstrates that the tribe continued to occupy these lands and the governing sovereigns, whether it be the British Crown by way of the colonial government, the United States, or the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, continued to recognize the lands as a reservation,” according to the Taunton Daily Gazette.
Opposed to the BIA’s decision, a group of East Taunton neighbors are the plaintiffs in Littlefield v. Department of the Interior (pdf), which Judge William G. Young will hear sometime today in his chambers in the federal courthouse in Boston. Those opposed contend that in its decision, the U.S. Department of the Interior exceeded its reach and wrongly interpreted the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Carcieri v. Salazar.
The Carcieri case was decided in February 2009 when the highest court in the land held that the term “now under Federal jurisdiction” applied only to tribes that were already federally recognized when the Indian Reorganization Act became law in 1934, and that tribes that were recognized after that time could not have land taken into trust by the federal government. In the plaintiff’s 32-page brief they wrote, “The Mashpees were not organized and functioning as a tribe in 1934— indeed any time after 1869,” and, “The Secretary’s current end-run on Carcieri and willingness to take a contrary position in this court is not explainable or excusable as a sound change in public policy or as necessary governmental action to uphold the law, as reported by the news outlet.
The case that will be heard today has been whittled down by Judge Young to the one issue of whether or not the Mashpee tribe qualifies under the provisions of the 1934 act; temporarily setting aside the other portions of the complaint.
Meanwhile, wishing to have the city of Taunton’s voice heard, an amicus brief was filed on Thursday by attorneys for the city in support of the Department of Interior’s decision. The city’s participation in the litigation is opposed by the Littlefield plaintiffs. The tribe is not a litigant in the case challenging the decision, which the opposition hopes will stop the first phase of First Light from opening next summer.
Lawsuit withstanding, the tribe broke ground in April, which served as a catalyst for an injunction to be sought by the East Taunton neighbors. Judge Young, however, made the decision to fast-track the case.