On a Friday afternoon in late March, Cedric Cromwell, Chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe in Massachusetts, received a call, from Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) director Darryl LaCounte. Cromwell assumed LaCounte was calling to see how the agency could assist the Mashpee Wampanoag Nation in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, which was already disproportionally affecting Indigenous peoples across the U.S.
Instead, Cromwell learned that, based on an order from Department of Interior, the federal government was de-establishing the Mashpee Wampanoag’s reservation, effective immediately. De-establishment would mean the tribe could continue to hold onto their land, but they would have to pay steep back taxes on it. They would no longer be able to operate as a sovereign nation, and would suddenly be unable to operate their own police or judicial system.
The land in question is their ancestral home, where the Mashpee Wampanoag greeted the Pilgrims in 1620, and from where the Mashpee helped the colonizers farm, taught them about local vegetation and aquatic life, and even held the first Thanksgiving with them. Their 321-acre reservation is far smaller than the tribe’s original nation, which stretched from eastern Rhode Island into Massachusetts, and has been inhabited by the Mashpee Wampanoag for 12,000 years.
Describing the revocation as a “terroristic attack from this administration against my tribe,” Cromwell likened it to how colonizers used smallpox to exterminate Indigenous peoples 400 years ago, after the Mashpee Wampanoag welcomed the Pilgrims to their shores.
“They killed us off and took our land. . . . Talk about re-opening wounds and repeating history,” said Cromwell, referencing how Pilgrims distributed diseased blankets to the tribe, after the Wampanoag taught the Pilgrims to fish and hunt for cod, sea bass, turkey, rabbit, and lobster. “When you think of our homelands being taken away, that would take away our ability to farm our land as a sovereign nation,” he added.
“They killed us off and took our land. Talk about re-opening wounds and repeating history.”
An East Coast tribe, the Mashpee retain their indigenous fishing and hunting rights, relying on wild foods like striped bass or deer for sustenance. They also rely on gathering herbs, vegetables and fruits, like elderberry, blueberries, beach plum, wild garlic, milkweeds or fiddlehead ferns, many of which grow wild on their reservation.
In response to the U.S. government’s move, the Mashpee filed an emergency restraining order against the Department of Interior to stop its actions, and tribes across the country were watching the case closely: The BIA move was the first time since the end of the Termination Era in the late 1960s that the U.S. government attempted to de-establish a reservation, and observers feared that it foreshadowed how the Trump administration intends to approach tribal relations.
On June 5, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia reversed the Interior Department’s move, effectively saying that the Department of Interior did not follow its own guidelines.
“I believe this president really thought he could get away with it,” said Cromwell. “There is no legal precedent for how he can do this.”
Despite the legal win, which allows the Wampanoag to continue developing their food sovereignty plans, the tribe still needs to federally establish their reservation, which is necessary to secure their long-term sovereignty.
Fighting for Access to Traditional Foods
Although the Mashpee are a smaller tribe, the fact that they have remained on their historical lands is significant in the U.S., where many tribes have been forcibly removed, and gives them access to some of their traditional hunting and fishing grounds and the cultural traditions centered around food.
As the tribe’s land has been systematically taken away, they face food insecurity and are turning to greenhouses to try and ensure the ability to raise year-round crops in the cold Northeast climate, said Cromwell. In addition to their agricultural enterprises, they have an operational oyster farm, as well as recreational shellfishing, crabbing and fishing in their traditional waters. As recently as 2015, they’ve fought locally to protect parts of their waterways from development.
“[My parents] taught us how to survive by the season—food sovereignty is everything for us,” said Sherry Pocknett, a Mashpee Wampanoag tribal member and chef who is in the process of opening Sly Fox Den, an indigenous food restaurant, in Connecticut. “It is just really hard for East Coast Indians to keep their lifeways going because . . . no one wants you on their property or to cut through to get to the source [for shellfishing].”
The Mashpee tribe built a 3,500-square-foot greenhouse on their land in an effort to provide more food for elders, as well as promote agriculture in their community. They raise squash, potatoes, and corn—vegetables that are part of a typical Thanksgiving, said Cromwell. Additionally, the tribe’s health services use the greenhouse to grow natural herbal remedies, while the larger farm is also as an educational tool for the tribe’s native language project.
“Diabetes is very high amongst our people, because of the industrialized food that our bodies weren’t really accustomed to eating,” said Cromwell. Pointing out that reservation status would help support the tribe’s farm initiative, he stressed the importance of “getting back more to the traditional foods—beans, squash, and corn—that help heal the body.”
Food Sovereignty and Legal Status
Since the Mayflower arrived from England in November 1620, Indigenous peoples’ ability to sustain their cultural and food traditions has been irrevocably linked to their ability to access land, which is why this recent decision to further divorce the Mashpee from their traditional holdings has many up in arms.
“Our Indigenous ancestors had the luxury of the knowledge of generations handed down to them, we’ve lost a lot of that. People don’t even know their own environment anymore,” said Sean Sherman, a chef and the creator of North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems (NATIFS) a Minnesota-based nonprofit that works to promote Indigenous foodways. At his Minneapolis business, The Sioux Chef, he said that many patrons are surprised by the cedar tea they serve, and the fact that the common tree is actually a flavorful food source.
Recent history in the United States shows that it is “extremely important” for Indigenous peoples to have access to their ancestral land, he added. “Because of the loss of land, and because of the loss of connection and access to our own foods, we see a lot of loss of culture . . . especially to the East,” Sherman said.
The Shinnecock tribe in New York also has access to, and is fighting to retain, hunting and fishing rights on their traditional lands. And they’re facing a food sovereignty challenge similar to the Mashpee Wampanoag. Traditionally a hunter-gatherer tribe with a strong connection to the water, the Shinnecock’s local waterways have been increasingly circumscribed by local and state authorities, as well as non-Indigenous fishermen.
Similar to their sister tribe, the Mashpee Wampanoag, the Shinnecock are also now turning to a greenhouse and community garden, in an effort to bolster their food sovereignty, as some of their traditional gathering methods, and where they are able to hunt, have been affected by modern development.
Describing the Shinnecock as a “wealthy tribe” because they can still access traditional foods such as beach plums, clams, and deer, tribal member Jason Colfield said, “that one word—sovereignty—holds a lot of power within Indian Country. We don’t take it for granted. And we are constantly fighting for it.”
In 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision in Carcieri v. Salazar that upended the status of every tribe not federally recognized in the landmark 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, which aimed to “conserve and develop Indian lands and resources” and strengthen tribes’ sovereignty and cultures.
“That one word—sovereignty—holds a lot of power within Indian Country. We don’t take it for granted. And we are constantly fighting for it.”
This decision created legal confusion for dozens of tribes, including the Mashpee Wampanaog, who in 2007 were federally recognized, but in 1934 were left off the U.S. government’s list of “recognized” tribes. The 2009 decision made it impossible for the government to take the Mashpee Wampanoag land into trust, the legal process for creating a reservation, as well as the land of dozens of other tribes across the U.S.
“[The Carcieri] decision threw into limbo the status quo that all tribes should be treated the same under federal law, including that land could be taken into trust,” said Derrick Beetso, general counsel of the National Congress of American Indians.
Despite legal contracts that predated the formation of the U.S., the Mashpee tribe among those tribes left out of the 1934 Act, and it was the first to try to establish a new reservation after 2009. That’s why the Mashpee case is important: Other tribes who were similarly left off the 1934 federal list are hoping to follow the Mashpee approach and establish their own sovereign nations.
In addition to the threatened loss of sovereignty for the Mashpee Wampanoag people, many worry about what kind of legal precedent the proposed de-establishment will set. Indigenous law in the U.S. has gone through many phases, and while some feel that tribal sovereignty has moved in a positive direction in recent decades, the Trump Administration’s sudden move seems to be a worst-case consequence of the 2009 Carcieri v. Salazar decision.
While the tribe was able to block the Department of Interior’s decision to de-establish their reservation, they are still not federally established and Mashpee Chairman Cromwell underlined the importance of having H.R. 312, which would re-affirm their status, or H.R. 375 which would amend the controversial Indian Reorganization Act, passed in Senate.
Either bill would allow the Mashpee to federally establish their reservation, giving them more ability to make long-term plans for tribal food sovereignty, and it would also set legal precedent for other tribes, including the Shinnecock, to follow suit.
“The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe . . . greeted the pilgrims and shared their harvest in this thing called Thanksgiving. We are American history,” said Cromwell. “The U.S. is almost saying, ‘Well, we got what we wanted, [now] we are going to completely erase you.’”
Photos courtesy of the Mashpee Wampanoag.