The Mashpee Wampanoag and the broader question of a genuine home rule for Native Americans

On Wednesday May 15th 2019 the US House of Representatives passed a bill aimed at preserving the federal trust status of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe’s land in Massachusetts. The legislation would reaffirm the Massachusetts tribe’s sovereignty over 321 acres of land held in trust by the U.S. Department of Interior. The agency in 2015 declared the land as the tribe’s reservation, but a federal judge rejected that decision in 2016 after a suit by residents of Taunton, where the tribe wants to build a $1 billion casino.

This undated architectural rendering provided by Steelman Partners shows an updated plan for the First Light Resort & Casino that the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe envisions building on their reservation in Taunton, Mass.

In September, the Interior Department ruled it cannot hold land in trust for the tribe, a decision made under former President Obama. This ruling devastated the tribe’s plans for an economic base that could benefit tribal members. It was also meant to serve as a unifying central node for members who have been forced to relocate across the country in search of work.

The legal wrangling involved in dealing with federal, state and county authorities about all things big and small is exhausting for Native American tribes. It is time consuming, usurps wast amount of money and the whole paperwork hinders every project tribal members want to launch. Not that being state or federally recognized is such a blessing. Many vital decisions are taken by the Bureau of Indian Affairs staff in Washington. That bureaucracy is paternalistic and demeaning for a Native American ethnic group to go through on a daily basis. But, it also involves access to funds that benefits a status quo on the reservations and improves the economic status from starvation and impoverishment to just being defined as poor. In some cases an alarmingly high number of people on remote and desolate reservations like the Lakotas Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, are locked in a cycle of unemployment, hopelessness and/or alcohol and drug abuse. The self-reliance and the entrepreneurial spirit is at the same time hampered by lack of access to small-time loans and by bureaucratic regulations.

What would really benefit most of the Native American tribes is a genuine home rule with the same legal standing that states enjoy in the federal structure that is the United States. If the states of Rhode Island, with a land base of 3,144 km2 and 1,057,000 people in 2018, and Delaware, with a land base of 5,130 km2 and 967,000 people in 2018, can be states among other larger territories like Texas, then why can’t Native American tribes enjoy this privilege too? The geographical size of the Navaho Indian Reservation, with a land base of 71,000 km2 and 350,000 people in 2016, for instance, is much larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined. In land size it even equals or surpasses many of the states in the US federal system.

Home rule for Native Americans would give the tribes a real opportunity to solve their own problems themselves and decide on their own future direction. It does not involve white people being automatically carried out of their homes. The oppressed would not become the oppressors of a former elite social group. At the same time it would not threaten the integrity of the United States but instead add to it’s multicultural diversity. As a whole, the United States would benefit greatly from it. It’s world-wide reputation would increase from being the most warlike nation in world history to really being a more peaceful tolerant society that respects human rights and dignity.

Tekoomsē, better known as Tecumseh, sought from 1808-1812 to unite the tribes east of the Mississippi to stem the tide of Euro-American settlement and expansion from the Atlantic coast west. That great task failed however as the project of uniting disparate sometimes feuding tribes spread out over a vast territory into one political confederacy was near impossible to achieve. This remarkable man however came close to see his dream come true. Tecumseh was killed in battle fighting the Euro-Americans on October 5th, 1813.

Becoming a fully functioning state would require that long-standing land disputes would have to be resolved, along with mismanagement, corruption, oppression and exploitation. Older fraudulent treaties need to be addressed and reinterpreted or even dissolved. Replaced by just treaties by two independent entities that deal with each other on a national or even international level. To get justice done the international community would have to be involved and in many cases take direct charge of a project of this magnitude.

This would be no easy task to say the least. But, it is the only right way forward to give peace and justice for all. It would give Native Americans the chance to live a decent life with decent wages in a more just society than they do today.

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