New BIA Head Tries to Terminate the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, a Warning Sign to All Native Nations

Few non-Indian people probably know about the “Termination Era” of the 1940s-1960s, when federal policy tried to terminate Native nations’ sovereign rights and their reservations, and force indigenous peoples to move to the cities and assimilate to Main Stream America.

The Trump Administration is trying to revive that effort, according to a news report in IndianZ.com, targeting the “Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, whose homelands in Massachusetts are now on the chopping block,” the story says.

And its raising an alarm across Indian Country.

Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Seal. Image courtesy of Nathan Stoliz.

Tara Sweeney, the new Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, issued a decision this month to take the Mashpee Wampanoag reservation out of federal trust, the first time such action has been taken since the 1950s, according to the IndianZ story.

About the Mashpee Wampanoag

The Mashpee Wampanoag, also known as the People of the First Light, have been on these lands for 12,000 years, according to the Nation’s website.

However, it wasn’t until 2007 — under the Bush Administration — that the Mashpee Wampanoag received federal recognition. (Native nations on the eastern seaboard were killed or displaced well before the United States became a country.)

According to the Mashpee Wampanoag’s website, it took more than three decades of hard work to achieve federal recognition. It says:

In 2015, [under the Obama Administration] the federal government declared 150 acres of land in Mashpee and 170 acres of land in Taunton as the Tribe’s initial reservation, on which the Tribe can exercise its full tribal sovereignty rights. The Mashpee tribe currently has approximately 2,600 enrolled citizens.

The Mashpee Wampanoag want to build a $1 billion casino on their lands.

The Trump Administration wants to strip the Mashpee Wampanoag of their federal tribal status.

Push Back

Proposed Congress legislation would prevent the reservation from being dissolved, according to the IndianZ article. It’s called the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act, and it appears to be the nation’s best chance to survive.

Map of Southern New England, 1620-22, showing Native peoples, settlements, and English exploration sites. Image courtesy of AnthroMimus.

A Boston Globe editorial challenged the Massachusetts congressional delegation to step up to support the Mashpee Wampanoag:

No excuses. No whining about partisan gridlock. Congress has taken such action before for other tribes. They should do it for the tribe that greeted the Pilgrims and joined in the first Thanksgiving. The need to beg is a national embarrassment — and a special embarrassment for Massachusetts, as the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrim landing in Plymouth approaches.

The challenge to the Mashpee Wampanoag’s federal status has raised “red flags” across Indian Country, according to a June story in WBUR (Boston’s NPR station),:

“While it’s not exactly the same [as the Termination Era], this brings back those same types of concerns, that those lands that have been seen as secure and protected are potentially not as secure as they were before,” said Derrick Beetso, senior counsel for the National Congress of American Indians, the largest organization representing tribal communities.

Two dozen tribes, from the Apache in the Southwest to the Sioux in the Dakotas, have written letters in support of legislation in Congress proposed by Massachusetts lawmakers to enshrine the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe’s land status.

The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) issued a statement opposing the BIA’s efforts to terminate the Mashpee Wampanoag:

NCAI is extremely disappointed in this decision, as it reflects the obvious failure of the Federal Government to uphold its trust responsibility to Indian tribes. NCAI demands an immediate response from the Department as to whether this decision indicates that the Administration’s current land policy towards Indian tribes is one of “how to get to no.”

Quick History on the Termination Policy

To bring this discussion closer to home, the federal government tried to “terminate” recognized tribes more half a century ago, including the Menominee Nation in Wisconsin. It was ugly.

Here is how the website Indian Country Wisconsin recounts the Menominee Nation’s termination, and the federal government’s abusive and strong-armed tactics back in the 1950s:

The Bureau of Indian Affairs began to assemble a list of tribes believed to have the economic prosperity needed to sustain themselves after termination, and at the top of the list was the Menominee Tribe of Wisconsin. One reason the BIA chose the Menominee was that the tribe had successful forestry and lumbering operations that the BIA believed could support the tribe economically. Congress passed an act in 1954 that officially called for the termination of the Menominee as a federally recognized Indian tribe.

Termination for the Menominee did not happen immediately. Instead, the 1954 act set in motion a process that would lead to termination. The Menominee were not comfortable with the idea, but they had recently won a case against the government for mismanagement of their forestry enterprises, and the $8.5 million award was tied to their proposed termination. [Utah Sen. Arthur V.] Watkins personally visited the Menominee and said they would be terminated whether they liked it or not, and if they wanted to see their $8.5 million, they had to cooperate with the federal government. Given this high-handed and coercive threat, the tribal council reluctantly agreed.

Termination turned out to be a very complex process, requiring seven years. Menominee was “terminated” in 1961. “All tribal property was transferred to a corporation, Menominee Enterprises, Inc. (MEI), and the reservation became a new Wisconsin county, Menominee County,” Indian Country Wisconsin said.

It was a disaster. The county was the least populated and poorest in Wisconsin. The Menominee stopped receiving federal funds. Among other things, it forced the reservation’s hospital to close.

Klamath Termination Policy

In 1954, the federal government also terminated the Klamath Nation in Oregon, with similar disastrous results. According to Wikipedia:

In the 1950s, the Klamath tribe in Oregon was one of the strongest and wealthiest tribes in the nation. They had created a vigorous economy based on timber resources and imported livestock, which nearly fully supported the entire tribe.

That said, those living on the reservation were mostly poor and unemployed.

Within the tribe, termination had been supported only by a few who were loyal to Sen. Watkins. After being terminated, the tribe was cut off from services for education, health care, housing and related resources. Termination directly caused decay within the tribe including poverty, alcoholism, high suicide rates, low educational achievement, disintegration of the family, poor housing, high dropout rates from school, disproportionate numbers in penal institutions, increased infant mortality, decreased life expectancy, and loss of identity.

The Indian Country Wisconsin website continues:

The experiences of both tribes [Menominee and Klamath] were so negative that other tribes slated to be terminated strongly resisted. Congress also saw that termination did not bring about the desired results, and by the late 1950s and early 1960s a new group of congressmen halted the process of terminating tribes.

The Menominee and Klamath nations eventually — with effort — had their lands and status restored. But it should be no surprise that the BIA’s move to terminate the Mashpee Wampanoag is retraumatizing Native nations across the country.

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