Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Chairman Cedric Cromwell spoke to Indian Country Today Media Network in this exclusive interview the day after the Massachusetts Gaming Commission voted unanimously April 18 to seek bids for a commercial casino in the southeastern part of the state. (Read: Massachusetts Gaming Commission Opens Mashpee Exclusivity Region to Commercial Gaming) The tribe was guaranteed an exclusive right to operate a destination resort casino in that area, known as Region C, in tribal provisions embedded in the Expanded Gaming Act of 2011. The law authorized three resort casinos in three different areas of the state, including the Mashpee casino in the southeast. The Massachusetts Gaming Commission’s action would create a fourth casino in contradiction of the law. The law says the gaming commission “shall” open the southeast area to commercial gaming if it determines that the Department of the Interior (DOI) will not take land into trust for the tribe, but it has not and cannot make that determination since the tribe’s trust land application is being processed by the Department of the Interior. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) turned back a tribal-state gaming compact last fall for being too beneficial to the state and a revised is before the state legislature. (Read: Department of Interior Rejects Mashpee Gaming Compact)
The tribe is very close to finishing the federal land into trust process and now this new wrinkle appears with the Massachusetts Gaming Commission opening up the tribe’s exclusivity zone to commercial gaming.
We’ll keep fighting and we’ll prevail. That’s our way and that’s my job. We’re closer than ever and we still have more work to do. I think the real obstacle is the mindset of folks who don’t respect our tribal rights and our tribal provisions. Unfortunately, even today when there’s more tribal awareness and tribal acceptance there’s still ignorance about tribal rights. The governor acted in a respectful, artful and collaborative way [in negotiating the tribal-state gaming compact] and the Massachusetts legislature took into account tribal rights and clearly stated them in the tribal provisions of the Extended Gaming Act of 2011. Certainly, the tribe met and exceeded all the needs and goals and continues along with the trust land process The Massachusetts Gaming Commission made a very misguided, ill-advised decision. At the end of the day, if they award a commercial destination resort casino in our region, we’re not going to pay the Commonwealth anything and it will lose hundreds of millions of dollars.
How can the commission override the authority of the governor and legislature, which passed a bill for three casinos in three different regions?
One of the commissioners, Commissioner James McHugh, is a former judge and he thinks he’s on the bench. He goes into his interpretation of what he believes the law is. We’ve clearly stated that, legally, they don’t have the right to interpret the law the way they’re doing. So while I’m not going to come out and say we’re going to file a lawsuit, what we are going to do is focus on getting our land into trust, getting our facility open and if they’re that foolish to award a commercial license and a developer is that foolish to invest money near a tribe that’s paying zero dollars, game on! And it’s a great day for the tribe and a bad day for the Commonwealth. Those gaming commissioners will be held accountable for destroying the landscape of gaming for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
How would that destroy the gaming landscape in the state?
The state hired Spectrum Gaming as a consultant to analyze proposed gaming. In its report of August 2008 to the state, Spectrum said, ‘You’ve got to deal with the tribe, you’re got to get a compact, you’ve got to enjoy revenue share, you’ve got to make a meaningful concession of exclusivity. If you don’t deal with the tribe, it will become a value destructor’—meaning it will destroy the value of any commercial projects not only in the same region as the tribe’s casino but in other regions as well because how can a commercial casino paying a high tax rate to the Commonwealth compete with a federally recognized tribe’s Indian Gaming Regulatory Act resort casino that’s not paying anything to the Commonwealth? It comes down common sense and to dollars and cents.
Do you think the governor is just going to go along with this Massachusetts Gaming Commission decision?
The governor was very clear in the media in the past weeks stating the tribe needs more time and we must ensure that the tribal-state compact get passed. It’s before the legislature and will be scheduled soon. So he’s been very clear because he follows the advice from Spectrum.
Why do you think the gaming commission decided to open the area to commercial gaming?
The Massachusetts Gaming Commission has not been transparent with the tribe or the citizens of Massachusetts. The Chairman Stephen Crosby has publicly stated, ‘We have spoken to our consultants and Commonwealth legislators who told us that we must move forward with opening up Region C. We can’t let Region C fall behind.” So we want to know which legislators told them that. We sent a letter to the Massachusetts Gaming Commission asking them who the legislators are and they wouldn’t respond. They said a consultant told them it would be 10 years or more before Mashpee could open its casino. We even had our attorney Judy Shapiro contact the consultant and ask him why he’d say that when we’ve submitted everything [to the Interior Department], we’re waiting for the environmental process to be posted and have the draft Environmental Impact Statement hearings and posting in the federal register and then after the comment period, looking forward to a Record of Decision. So it shows that they have no respect for the tribal provisions, no respect for tribal rights. They have no respect for us.
The Massachusetts Gaming Commission is not accountable to anyone. It’s a rogue group that I believe is not operating in a way that reflects transparency, integrity and lay of the land, but instead is listening to legislators that obviously are motivated by self-interest for their own region—which is our region—and the developers who intend to bring commercial gaming there.
Do you know who the legislators are?
The legislators for New Bedford and the City of Fall River have argued against the tribal provisions saying their sites are better and they welcome commercial operations.
The City of Taunton, where our casino will be built, and the tribe have entered into an intergovernmental agreement. We have land under our control there. The Assistant Secretary of Bureau of Indian Affairs said the land qualifies as our initial reservation under the 1988 IGRA and the Interior Department Secretary said our trust land is the ‘top priority.’ We passed a referendum with a resounding 63 percent. The people of Taunton clearly want the tribe there and want a destination resort casino there. So if you’re talking about measurements, we’ve got measurements. So the Massachusetts Gaming Commission should be able to manage it through measurements by whom? By the competent federal jurisdiction responsible for Indian trust land—not the Massachusetts Gaming Commission. The only way the gaming commission could determine that Mashpee will never have trust land is if the Interior Department and BIA come out and say the tribe won’t have it.
Do you anticipate any problem with the legislature approving the revised compact?
I don’t think so because the legislature approved in good faith the governor’s negotiation of the compact and they approved the tribal provisions in the Enhanced Gaming Act so I can’t see why they’d disapprove the compact.
Have the commissioners been talking to developers too?
Commercial developers have urged the commission to open up Region C. KG Urban Enterprises, which wants to build a casino in New Bedford, is suing the Commonwealth saying the tribal provision is unconstitutional and race-based but it clearly doesn’t understand that tribes are written into the Constitution as political entities that can enter into commerce as can states and municipalities.
Do you think the developers are having more influence on the commissioners?
The commission is supposed to be autonomous. Their job is not to interpret the law; it’s to implement the law.
So do you feel that these five people on the Massachusetts Gaming Commission are repeating the usual betrayals of the dominant settler colonial project?
Yeah, they don’t know any better. I look at these commissioners and I think, they haven’t spent any time with tribes. They don’t know any Indian people. Our lobbyist, former Congressman Bill Delahunt, urged Commissioner [James] McHugh at a hearing in Falls River to meet with the Interior Department and the BIA to understand the land into trust process and federal jurisdiction and where the tribe is in the process. I had told him how far along in the process the tribe is and the other after the hearing he told me, ‘I just spoke to the Interior Department and you’re absolutely correct – there are no red flags with your application.’ So after a year of not speaking to the department he hears that news at the same time he votes to open up our exclusivity area to commercial gaming. It makes no sense. But it’s our opportunity to educate America that as Indian people we’ll always be 100 percent sovereign, we’re productive people, we’re educated, we’ve got great cultural traditions, we’re your neighbors, your countrymen and your friends and we have an answer to help uplift America despite the ignorance of those anti-sovereignty, anti-Indian people. We will rise above.
What’s the tribe’s next step?
To remain 100 percent sovereign under the Creator, to protect and promote our sovereign rights, continue our land into trust and have it in trust within the year or sooner. Once the final Record of Decision happens for our trust land we’ll put a shovel in the ground no matter which commercial entity tries to sue us or even another tribe that may oppose us, because, let’s face it, sometimes we’re our own worst enemy, and we’ll build it and open the door and get it running and provide hundreds of good job. At that point, hopefully, there will be no commercial facility in our region and the Commonwealth will be the beneficiary of a revenue sharing agreement.
If there is a commercial facility, we’ll still open our doors but the Commonwealth will get no share and we’ll be a ‘value destructor’ against any facility and we will rise and the good people will say amen.
Do you need to sue anyone at this point?
No, however, I can’t say that we will or that we won’t. All rights reserved.
Were you surprised at the Massachusetts Gaming Commission's decision?
No, not at all. I expected them to do this. We understand everything about them. We know how this society works, how capitalism works, how greed and ignorance work. We know the plight of Native America and while there have been some successes between some states and some tribes, there’s more ignorance and negativity towards Indian country. We know everything about them, we understand them, but they don’t understand us. That’s not a relationship. That’s an elitist attitude that’s not respectful of Indian sovereignty.
Are you angry?
No, I’m very excited! Know why? They want you to be angry, to be self destructive and lose your focus. I’m very positive; I’m deeply engaged and focused on our sovereignty and the federal sovereign process. We’re moving ahead. I say enough of this foolishness. Let’s respect each other and work together. It’s very basic – Indian tribes have rights, sit down and talk with them, negotiate, get the best of both worlds, but don’t be the oppressor. Again, we’re written into the Constitution – respect us.
Sounds like you’ve been liberated.
They’re negative position was helpful. There’s no ambiguity anymore; there’s no question around are they with us, are they not? They’ve spoken — that’s their right, whether it’s legal is another question. So, yes, it gives you a level of liberation to be able to say they can’t be taken seriously anymore.
What lesson can Indian country gain from this?
Stand up and don’t stand down! Plan and execute. Unify with solidarity. Always focus on the Creator and don’t hurt each other. And I’ll continue to speak the words to mobilize Indian people from coast to coast to stand up and not stand down.