Amid health crisis, Trump administration finds time to attack Indigenous rights and the environment

With the coronavirus dominating the daily news, with much of the country in virtual lock down, with the federal government struggling to coordinate an effective pandemic response, the Trump administration is quietly attacking Indigenous rights and the environment.

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

U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt Friday “disestablished” the recently created Mashpee Wampanoag reservation on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

Being “disestablished” means the federal government no longer holds Mashpee Wampanoag lands in trust. Having land held in trust gives Native Nations legal status and sovereignty to decide how to manage their reservation lands.

A story from the Mashpee Enterprise: Tribal Chairman Says Trump Administration Ordered Land Taken Out Of Trust, says the Interior Department’s actions have placed Mashpee Wampanoag projects on limbo.

Construction of 42 affordable housing units for tribal members on the land in Mashpee has yet to be finished. The construction of a $1.5 billion casino and resort on the land in Taunton has long been stalled by litigation.

The Mashpee Wampanoag Nation, “also known as the People of the First Light, inhabited what is now Massachusetts and Eastern Rhode Island for more than 12,000 years, its website said. After an arduous, three-decades-long process, the nation received federal recognition in 2007 during the George W. Bush administration and established its reservation in 2015 during the Obama administration. The nation currently has approximately 2,600 citizens.

Its offices are currently closed because of the coronavirus outbreak. In a Friday post on the Mashpee Wampanoag’s website, Chairman Cedric Cromwell responded to the U.S. Interior Department’s actions, calling them “cruel” and “unnecessary.”

The Secretary is under no court order to take our land out of trust. He is fully aware that litigation to uphold our status as a tribe eligible for the benefits of the Indian Reorganization Act is ongoing.

It begs the question, what is driving our federal trustee’s crusade against our reservation?

Jean-Luc Pierite, the head of the North American Indian Center of Boston “called the move an existential crisis for all tribes federally recognized after 1934,” the KBUR news report said. “The move without a court order signals that reservations across the United States could be taken out of trust at the discretion of the secretary of the interior.”

Portion of the Massachusetts’ Colony’s original seal. The ribbon reads: “Come Over and Help Us.”

Native peoples on the East Coast were among the first to be killed off or forced west by European settlers, dating back to the Mayflower. Note the Massachusetts Colony’s original seal, at right, dating back to 1629. The assimilation enterprise already is evident.

Massachusetts has no other federally recognized Native Nations. (Massachusetts recognized the Hassanamisco Nipmuc, which have a 4.5-acre reservation in Grafton.)

In a nut shell, the Interior Department denied the Mashpee Wampanoag the ability to keep its federal recognition because they were too late making the request. That door closed in 1934 with the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act, Interior Department officials said. The U.S. government continues to hold reservation lands in trust for Native nations, but said it stopped entering into such trust agreements after 1934. Litigation is pending on several issues. The U.S. Court of Appeals has ruled against the Mashpee Wampanoag, saying the federal government wasn’t authorized to hold their land in trust.

It seems like a legalistic and absurd argument to set such a cut-off date, given the United States’ genocidal history with Indigenous peoples and the lack of power they would have had in the 1930s. A request by the Mashpee Wampanoag for sovereign territory on Cape Cod surely would have been denied back then.

For more background, see our 2018 post New BIA Head Tries to Terminate the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, a Warning Sign to All Native Nations.

In other news, the Trump administration is weakening environmental protections during the health crisis, according to a story in The Hill: EPA suspends enforcement of environmental laws amid coronavirus. It starts out:

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a sweeping suspension of its enforcement of environmental laws Thursday, telling companies they would not need to meet environmental standards during the coronavirus outbreak.

The temporary policy, for which the EPA has set no end date, would allow any number of industries to skirt environmental laws, with the agency saying it will not “seek penalties for noncompliance with routine monitoring and reporting obligations.” …

In a 10-page letter to the EPA earlier this week, the American Petroleum Institute (API) asked for a suspension of rules that require repairing leaky equipment as well as monitoring to make sure pollution doesn’t seep into nearby water.

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