Mashpee Wampanoags Choose Taunton for Prospective Casino

Mashpee Wampanoag

Mashpee Wampanoag Chairman Cedric Cromwell watches as Chief “Silent Drum” Vernon Lopez cuts the ribbon on a new tribal community center in New Bedford last fall. They hope to be cutting the ribbon a new casino soon. (Photo by Jason Schwartz)

So Taunton it is. After months of searching, with rumors of deals in Bridgewater, Raynham, Plymouth, and just about everywhere in between, the Mashpee Wampanaog tribe has settled on a parcel of land for its prospective casino by the intersection of routes 24 and 140 in Taunton. Now the real fun begins. As I detailed in my story on the tribe in our December issue, three major challenges await.

First, the Mashpees must negotiate a compact with the governor, stipulating how much of the the tribe’s casino take will go to the state in taxes. While that deal will almost surely eventually get done, it likely won’t be easy. In Connecticut, Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods currently pay 25 percent of their slot revenue to the state. Though I have no inside knowledge on this, one would imagine the Mashpee would see that as a reasonable starting point for negotiations. But our casino bill here in Massachusetts calls for the non-Indian casinos operating in the state to pay a tax of 25 percent on all revenues. Closing the gap between those two figures won’t be easy.

Second, the Mashpee Wampanoags will have to win a host community referendum in Taunton. Chances are they will. Taunton needs the jobs, and the mayor is highly supportive. Still, as we’ve seen in Foxboro and East Boston, a spirited opposition group almost always pops up. Casinos are about as divisive a local issue as exists, and if you don’t believe it, you can go ask the people in Middleboro, where they’re still recovering from the rifts brought on by the Mashpee’s proposal to open a casino there five years ago.

And finally, the Mashpee Wampanoags must have their land in Taunton put into federal trust, or, in other words, designated as reservation land. Only once that’s done will they be able to operate their casino under the authority of Congress’s Indian Gaming Regulation Act. This is where things get really sticky. In 2oo9, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a case called Carcieri v. Salazar, deciding that the federal government did not have the authority to designate reservations for any tribe federally recognized after 1934.

Ordinarily, that would shut everything down. The Mashpees were formally recognized in 2007, which was just a few years after 1934. But, since the Carcieri ruling was based on a quirk of language from a 1934 law, the Obama administration’s Interior Department has shown a willingness to work around the Supreme Court’s decision. In 2010, the Interior Department granted the Cowlitz Tribe of Washington state a reservation, essentially saying that although the tribe was only formally recognized in 2000, they certainly existed as a tribe well before 1934 and, as a federally recognized one today, that’s good enough. The Mashpee Wampanoags, with their history stretching all the way back to the Mayflower, find themselves in a similar position.

But that hardly means getting their land into trust is a slam dunk. It depends on the whims of bureaucrats stretched from here to D.C. More ominously, Clark County, Wash., has filed suit against the federal government over the Cowlitz decision, and there’s a chance the case could make its way back to the US Supreme Court. That would give the justices the chance to say something akin to, Didn’t you hear us the first time?

Tribe chairman Cedric Cromwell indicated to me while I was working on that December story that, even if the tribe did not have its land into trust yet, there’s a chance he’d go ahead with construction of a casino, assuming things would work out. He also hinted that, worst comes to worst, there could be some workaround with the state allowing the Mashpees to open their casino without the land yet into trust. State officials were less than on board with that interpretation. This is all a long way of saying that uncertainties abound for the Mashpee Wampanoags. The tribe has its land deal with Taunton, but really, we’re just getting started.