The Big Gamble

By Jason Schwartz | Boston Magazine |

That could leave the Mashpee not only out a casino, but also crushed by the debt they’ve taken on in its pursuit.

Which makes right now a very bad time for the tribe to be bitterly divided.

6-foot-4 (at least), Cedric Cromwell, dressed in a navy pinstripe suit, is tough to miss as he works the crowd at a barbecue to celebrate the opening of  another new building — this one a satellite office in New Bedford. Stepping to a podium, Cromwell gushes with more talk of the Mashpee “renaissance time.” He introduces a group of a half-dozen people, who are seated around a traditional drum. When they start to play, he joins in, yipping and banging right along. As he wipes sweat from his brow with his suit jacket still on, he’s a striking blend of tradition and modernity.

That the event is in New Bedford is as much a testament to the tribe’s modern circumstance as anything. The majority of the Mashpee’s 2,600 enrolled members — those officially recognized by the tribe and allowed to vote in elections — still live clustered around their historical home base of Cape Cod, but that’s an expensive spot. As a result, a few hundred Mashpee also make their home in New Bedford, the old industrial city that sits across Buzzards Bay.

Even for those making a go of it on the Cape, times have been tough. According to the tribe, half of its members are unemployed and 50 percent live below the poverty line, with another 50 percent lacking a high school diploma. The median annual household income is $29,601 — less than half the state’s figure. Nearly 400 years after their ancestors greeted the Mayflower, the Mashpee are still very much waiting for their ship to come in.

The idea behind the casino is to provide jobs and generate the money that the tribal government needs for social services and preservation of the Mashpee heritage. Cromwell speaks dreamily about using casino profits to build housing and invest in education. The casino, in other words, means hope.

So far, though, the pursuit of gambling has brought only pain. That’s thanks in no small part to former tribal chairman Glenn Marshall. When Marshall took office in 2000, his principal task was gaining for the Mashpee what they had long desired: official recognition from the federal government and status as a sovereign nation. Despite its long history, the tribe had few dealings with the feds in its early days, and therefore had never been recognized. The 1970s saw a renewed push for sovereignty, but after 30 years of compiling what is believed to be the thickest application ever for federal recognition — 10,100 documents spread over 54,000 pages — their efforts had gone nowhere. Marshall, though, understood that to win in Washington, you had to play the Washington game. In 2001 he filed suit against the government for recognition. He also filled the tribal coffers with cash from investors who saw the potential for a casino. In 2003 he hired lobbyist Jack Abramoff to push the Mashpee agenda, and Marshall and other tribe members started making political donations with the kind of enthusiasm usually reserved for the National Rifle Association.