Mashpee Wampanoag Indian Tribal Council Vice-Chairwoman jessie little doe baird discusses issues facing the Wampanoag and other Native Americans.
jessie little doe baird (© John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)
Please give us an update on last year’s effort by the government to remove trust status from Wampanoag land.
We sued in the D.C. Circuit, and last summer we won our case. The judge told the Department of the Interior lawyers that they’d acted arbitrarily and capriciously. They filed an appeal. [The Biden administration dropped the case in February.] President Biden has tweeted his support of the Wampanoag, and he nominated Congresswoman Deb Haaland of New Mexico as the first Native American Secretary of the Interior, but there’s a lot of Republican pushback. [Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna, was confirmed in March.] We’ve won this battle, but we’ve been at war for 400 years.
What justice issues are particularly urgent for Native peoples right now?
The issue of missing or murdered Indigenous women and children is happening across the country. There are major environmental issues. There are huge water and fishing rights issues now in Maine and California, where people are having to fight for their salmon rights and lobster rights because the treaties are not being respected. Here on Cape Cod for my tribe, people get ticketed for hunting or fishing, so I work with the town to make sure the ticket is dissolved. We have a right under federal case law for aboriginal rights. This summer in Cotuit, a woman didn’t want people crossing her private property to fish. I said, “They have a right to pass over public and private lands to reach the water, they’ve been doing it for 12,000 years . . . and now you want to tell them they can’t cross it to get food? No, I’ll bring you to court, this is not our first rodeo, we’ve done this many times.” I’m also helping a tribal citizen with a court case where she was doing ceremony at the beach on Mashpee Pond, a very sacred place for us, and the police said the beach is closed [and] dragged her out of her sleeping bag and hit her in the face. They offered to drop the charges against her for resisting arrest if she agreed to community service, and she said absolutely no way. These are things we have to face all the time.
The COVID-19 pandemic has killed Native Americans at more than twice the rate of non-Hispanic white people, which must be devastating.
It’s really bad. We had eleven new cases last week [in mid-February] alone, a lot for a community [which in Mashpee is] a few hundred. We’ve been hurting so badly this year, and you can tell people to stay apart but they need each other. We’re getting direct shipments of the vaccine from the Indian Health Service. We’re getting people vaccinated as it comes in.
What resources do you recommend for allies who want to support the Wampanoag and other Native American tribes?
We need the help of allies because it’s easy to ignore people of color. For issues affecting tribes in the Northeast and South, go to United South and Eastern Tribes, Inc. (usetinc.org). For a national overview, there’s the National Congress of American Indians (ncai.org) and Indian Country News (indiancountrynews.com).
jessie little doe baird, who does not use upper-case letters in her name, served for eight years as vice-chairwoman of the Mashpee Wampanoag Indian Tribal Council. She previously spoke to UU World in the Summer 2020 issue.
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