Plymouth Rock Tribe Finally
Gains Federal Recognition!
Ian Fein - Vineyard Gazette
Feb 25, 2007
Thu Feb 15, 6:55 PM ET - Members of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe play
a drum waiting for news that the tribe has won recognition as a sovereign
American Indian nation, Thursday, Feb 15, 2007, in Mashpee, Mass. (AP
Aquinnah Tribe Hails Mashpee
Federal Recognition Announced for Wampanoags'
Sister Tribe, Prompting Warm Expressions And Also Tales of Caution
By IAN FEIN
When the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe received a telephone call from U.S.
Department of Interior last week, formally announcing their federal
recognition as a sovereign Indian tribe, members of the Wampanoag Tribe
of Gay Head (Aquinnah) looked across to the Cape with a warm heart and
a jaded eye.
They had lived through a similar moment almost 20 years ago to the
day, when they celebrated their status as the first federally recognized
tribe in the commonwealth.
Aquinnah Wampanoag members this week said they were happy for their
counterparts in Mashpee and that the tribal status was long overdue.
But with the perspective of two decades of experience, they also warned
that federal recognition can be a mixed blessing.
"We'll see how much good it does them now, because like everybody
else they can use the help," tribal elder Gladys Widdiss of Aquinnah
said. "But it's not going to be an easy transition - that's the
one thing I can tell them," she added.
"I'm very happy for them, and I wish them all the best,"
said June Manning, an Aquinnah Wampanoag historian. "But they still
have a long road and a lot of work ahead of them. Here we are 20 years
later, and sometimes it can all be very discouraging."
Federal recognition establishes a government-to-government relationship
between the tribe and the United States, and makes the tribe eligible
for millions of dollars in federal funding for housing, education, health
care and other social services. But the new status also has the potential
to pit tribal members against each other as they put programs into place,
and to create conflict with the surrounding communities.
Some Aquinnah Wampanoag members this week said they were left disillusioned
by the entire recognition system set up by the federal government.
"You're being recognized for something you've known all along,
and in a lot of ways it kind of puts you in a box," said Aquinnah
tribal planner and council member Durwood (Woody) Vanderhoop. "It's
easy to get trapped up in what federal recognition offers, and there
are some great resources if people take advantage and are judicious.
But it's very much a struggle."
The addition of a second recognized tribe in the Massachusetts could
also create a competition between the Aquinnah and Mashpee Wampanoags
for diminishing grants and services. Funding for Indian programs throughout
the country has decreased in recent years, and with more than 550 federally
recognized tribes in the United States, any new recognition further
divvies up the pot.
"It could be debated whether we should be looking at bigger things
than this system, which gives you just enough resources to begin to
make a difference but then often isn't followed up," Mr. Vanderhoop
said this week. "Some would say it just divides us further."
Though they share a language and culture, and were both part of a larger
Wampanoag nation, the Aquinnah and Mashpee tribes have long been separate
and distinct entities. No historical records document their differences
prior to European contact, but by the time the pilgrims landed in Plymouth
in 1620, the Mashpee Wampanoags were there to greet them, while the
Aquinnah tribal members had settled at the western edge of the Vineyard
- or Noepe, as they called the Island.
At that point, dozens of different Wampanoag tribes had formed villages
from Boston down to the tip of the Cape and Islands. European settlers
eventually took over most of the region, however, and though remnants
of a few other tribes still exist today, Mashpee and Aquinnah emerged
as the strongest remaining bands. The Massachusetts state legislature
in 1870 incorporated the towns of Mashpee and Gay Head (later renamed
Aquinnah) as areas inhabited almost entirely by Wampanoags.
The Mashpee tribe today is significantly larger than Aquinnah, with
about 1,500 members compared to 1,000. The two groups visit each other
for social gatherings periodically, and a tradition of intermarriage
has developed. Aquinnah member Jason Baird lives on the Cape with his
wife Jesse Little Doe, a Mashpee member, and commutes back to the Vineyard
for work. The couple has a young daughter, Mae Alice, who will be eligible
to enroll in either tribe.
Though representatives from the two tribes are working together on
a language reclamation project, and have joined for other shared cultural
preservation endeavors, formal cooperation between the tribes has been
limited. Neither tribe mentions the other in the history section of
its Web site, and the tribal councils have not met together in a number
Some Aquinnah members expressed hope that the two recognized tribes
could now work together to enhance each other's position.
"In recent years we've been doing our own things, as far as I
can see, and I don't know why we haven't done more collaboration. We're
dealing with all the same issues," Mr. Vanderhoop said. "In
terms of the tribal councils getting together, I hope our leadership
can work toward reaching out to each other. The more that we can work
together on issues where we have similar hopes and shared interests,
the more we might be able to support each other."
Mr. Vanderhoop identified housing as a primary challenge facing both
tribes, and he said economic development is also a high priority.
Mashpee Wampanoag leaders have made clear their intention to build
a resort casino in southeastern Massachusetts - something the Aquinnah
Wampanoags have chased unsuccessfully for more than a decade.
According to the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, the tribes would
only be allowed to build casinos if the Massachusetts state legislature
first approves some sort of gaming. A bill to allow slot machines in
the state's four race tracks passed in the state senate last year, but
was killed decisively in the house, 100 to 55.
Any tribal casino would also require a compact with the state governor.
Newly elected Gov. Deval Patrick has not yet taken a position on gaming,
but he did appoint a task force to explore the issue - a marked change
from former Gov. Mitt Romney, who was strongly opposed to the idea.
The Aquinnah tribe recently reformed a gaming corporation to negotiate
with state lawmakers, and tribal council chairman Donald Widdiss this
month sent a letter to Governor Patrick requesting a meeting to discuss
the possibility of expanding gaming in Massachusetts.
Though the Aquinnah Wampanoags have not completely dropped their pursuit
of an off-Island casino, some tribal members this week seemed skeptical
of the endeavor, and warned Mashpee leaders against relying too heavily
on the outcome. It is understood that the Aquinnah tribe has spent more
than $25 million on its attempts to secure a casino. Some members said
the tribe would have been better off investing in other economic development
opportunities closer to home.
"The lesson we've learned is that if casinos are your only focus,
you may fall behind in other areas," Mr. Vanderhoop said.
"It's a real gamble; it's fool's gold," Ms. Manning said.
"There are certainly other forms of economic development that tribes
can pursue. We live on the largest resort Island in New England, and
have thousands of people coming into our community every summer day.
How many thousands of people come through Mashpee? They have a lot of
great ways to develop businesses over there," she added.
"I'm sorry, but I just don't see casino gambling as the wave of
The Mashpee tribe first applied for federal recognition in 1975. Mrs.
Widdiss said the tribe should not have had to wait so long to receive
its status, no matter how she feels about the system.
"Deep down I feel that neither one of us need it, and neither
of us should have had to go through that," she said. "Yes,
federal recognition has advantages, but I think it has disadvantages
too. We've had to accept things that we weren't particularly sure we
needed or wanted."
Originally published in The Vineyard Gazette
edition of Friday, February 23, 2007