Amid pandemic and Pilgrim anniversary, Wampanoag face new threat

Amid pandemic and Pilgrim anniversary, Wampanoag face new threat

Unitarian Universalist Association calls for urgent action to support Native American tribe that first welcomed its Pilgrim religious ancestors 400 years ago.

jessie little doe baird hugs an attendee at a November 2017 celebration at the Old Indian Meeting House in Mashpee, Massachusetts

The Unitarian Universalist Association calls for Congressional action to defend the Mashpee Wampanoag from a decision by the Trump administration to take their Massachusetts land out of a federal trust. Here, jessie little doe baird, vice chairwoman of the Mashpee Wampanoag Indian Tribal Council, hugs an attendee at a November 2017 celebration at the Old Indian Meeting House in Mashpee, Massachusetts.(© 2017 AP Photo/Steven Senne)

© 2017 AP Photo/Steven Senne


The Wampanoag, the People of the First Light, were the first Native American nation to give land to the Pilgrims, in 1629, in what is now Massachusetts. For four decades the two groups lived in peace, but “our tenure and sovereignty have been under attack ever since,” says jessie little doe baird, vice-chairwoman of the Mashpee Wampanoag Indian Tribal Council, who does not use uppercase letters in her name. “We’ve never been left alone to peacefully enjoy our sovereignty and our resources.”

Today, during the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival, the Mashpee Wampanoag face a new and powerful threat. The Trump administration plans to remove their tribal lands from federal trust, which could lead to the shutdown of their school and police force and even cost them their land. The Unitarian Universalist Association is urging UUs to stand in solidarity with the Mashpee Wampanoag and reject the government’s “reprehensible actions.”

The Mashpee Wampanoag are one of the original sixty-nine tribes in the Wampanoag nation, whose territory stretched across much of eastern Massachusetts. Today, the Mashpees have about 320 acres, including 170 acres in the town of Mashpee, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. There, they run a Montessori school for over forty children, preschool through third grade, taught in the Wôpanâak language, which was lost for six generations until baird helped reclaim it twenty-seven years ago. The tribe runs its own police force and medical and dental clinic, and it is building a housing complex for tribal members that is “desperately needed,” says baird, who in 2010 received a MacArthur “genius award” fellowship for her work to reclaim the Wôpanâak language.

With these successes—after decades of legal battles over the land, not to mention centuries of genocidal assaults against Native Americans—baird was hopeful for the tribe’s future.

But at 4 p.m. on Friday afternoon, March 27, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, tribal leaders got an unexpected phone call from the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. Tribal Council Chairman Cedric Cromwell and baird were stunned by what they heard next.

“The gentleman on the phone said, ‘I’ve been instructed to tell you that under orders of the Secretary of the Interior, David Bernhardt, we’re going to take away your trust lands,’” recalls baird. The government officials cited a recent federal appeals court decision ruling that the government wasn’t authorized to place the land in trust; Cromwell countered that a related court case was pending and there was no mandate for the Department of the Interior (DOI) to act now.

“The sky is falling on my people,” says baird. If removed from trust and thus no longer sovereign, the land will still belong to the tribe, which was federally recognized in 2007. But the school likely will be forced to close since it would require certification for which the town of Mashpee has no guidelines, baird says. The housing complex could face legal challenges over zoning, the police force would be dissolved, and the tribe would be ineligible for certain federal funding. Worst of all, it could face property taxes it can’t afford and lose the land.

“We are the first tribe to give Indian titled land to the Pilgrims,” says baird, “and now we are the first tribe in modern history to face termination.”

Coming during the pandemic, the timing couldn’t be worse, baird says.

UU World made repeated but unsuccessful efforts to speak to officials at the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the DOI. Conner Swanson, a DOI spokesperson, told the Washington Post that the agency was obligated by the recent court decision to remove the land’s designation as a reservation, which the Obama administration granted in 2015. But with another lawsuit pending in federal court in Washington, D.C., the DOI was under no obligation to act, baird insists.

U.S. Rep. Bill Keating of Massachusetts tweeted that the DOI’s decision was “one of the most cruel and nonsensical acts I have seen since coming to Congress. The Secretary [of the Interior] should be ashamed.”

In May 2019, Keating introduced a bill, H.R. 312, to clear up the legal confusion over the land’s status and keep it in trust. It passed the House by a 275–146 vote with strong bipartisan support but stalled in the Senate after Trump 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!”

The UUA is asking UUs to call their senators to support passage of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act (S. 2628), which would override the Trump administration’s order to remove the land from trust.

In the meantime, the Mashpee Wampanoag have filed for an injunction to prevent the DOI from removing their land from trust and are seeking a ruling on a related suit by the tribe claiming the DOI didn’t follow its own standards in an earlier decision. A hearing is scheduled in federal court for May 7. The Wampanoag are also in contact with pan-Indian organizations such as the National Congress of American Indians, “since the situation today stands to affect over 100 tribes,” says baird.

Baird and others find the timing of the DOI decision troubling, given that the Mashpee Wampanoag planned to open a casino on land they own near the Rhode Island border. Trump, whose casinos in Atlantic City, New Jersey, failed in an era when others there thrived, has called Native American casinos “the biggest scandal ever.” The Mashpee Wampanoag casino would compete with two Rhode Island casinos owned by a group with strong Trump ties, Twin River Worldwide Holdings. The lobbyist for Twin River, Matt Schlapp, chairman of the Conservative Political Action Committee, is the husband of Mercedes Schlapp, the former White House director of strategic communications who is now working on Trump’s re-election campaign. Twin River’s president and CEO, George Papanier, is a former finance executive at a casino that Trump owned in Atlantic City.

Baird says she also believes the DOI decision may be related to a federal court decision, two days earlier, on March 25, halting construction of the Dakota Access pipeline, pending further environmental review. That ruling is a victory for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and a setback for Trump, who supports the pipeline, and for Secretary of the Interior Bernhardt, who is a former lobbyist for the energy industry.

‘This latest strike against the Mashpee is just one in a long line over 400 years,” says Ann Gilmore, a member of First Parish UU Congregation in Brookline, Massachusetts, and a lawyer who fought to protect the tribe’s land during a major court battle in the 1970s against private developers and others. The tribe lost in what Gilmore calls “one of the most racist trial spectacles in U.S. history.” Gilmore, who later married Russell Peters, former chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag, calls the DOI decision a “corrupt act” by Trump to “protect his buddies’ casino interests.” However, she adds, “Coming on this 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Mayflower, with our Unitarian forebears, this is a great opportunity to raise people’s consciousness” about ongoing Indigenous exploitation.

On March 31, the UUA issued a statement that “unequivocally affirms our support for the Mashpee Wampanoag people’s sovereignty and right to their ancestral territory, and condemns the government’s blatantly illegal and morally reprehensible attempt to strip the tribe of their rights and their homelands.” In keeping with the UUA General Assembly’s 2012 Responsive Resolution to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, the UUA called upon UUs to take immediate action to support the Wampanoag.

Noting that UUs have supported Indigenous communities in their fights for sovereignty and the protection of their lands and people, including the fight to stop the Dakota Access and KXL Pipelines, UUA President Susan Frederick-Gray stated, “Our congregations and the early formation of our religious tradition also draw our lineage to the Pilgrims on the Mayflower and this history of colonialism in this country. We have a responsibility to side with the Mashpee, to side with love in solidarity to protect the Mashpee and their land.”

Indeed, UUs have a specific tie to the Wampanoag. First Parish in Plymouth, Massachusetts, now a UU congregation, was established by the Pilgrims in England in 1606 and transplanted to Massachusetts in 1620, and for forty years, they and the Wampanoag maintained the peace pact that baird references. At First Parish Brewster UU in Brewster, Massachusetts, the One Earth/One People, Racial Justice Committee promotes support for the Mashpee Wampanoag, including learning to be effective allies.

To mark the anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival, the UUA General Assembly in June will feature programming that examines the deleterious effects of first contact on Indigenous people, including death, disease, and theft of land. Baird, who holds a master’s degree from MIT, and whose work on reclaiming the Wôpanâak language is the subject of the PBS documentary We Still Live Here—Âs Nutayuneân, will be featured in the opening worship service.

Baird, who says she appreciates the UU support, is frequently asked to express the Wampanoag experience around first contact. As the recent DOI decision demonstrates, “Believe me when I tell you, that contact experience is still happening,” she says. “You cannot heal from a hit in the head when you’re still being hit in the head.”

The UUA urges Unitarian Universalists to support the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act (S. 2628), the passage of which would override the Trump administration’s order to remove the land from federal trust:

  • Sign a petition calling on Congress to pass the Act.
  • Call Senator John Hoeven of North Dakota, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs: (202) 224-2551. Urge him to support the forward movement of the Act.
  • Call and email Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, who issued the order to disestablish their reservation lands: (202) 208-3100.
  • Call the Capitol switchboard at (202) 224-3121, ask to speak to your senators, and urge them to support the Act.
  • Make a donation to the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe through their official website.