The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe has two law-related reasons to celebrate: its chairman has received an honorary law degree from a prestigious east coast university and one of its citizens has been accepted at the university some say provides the best Indian law education in the country.
On Saturday, May 17, Mashpee Chairman Cedric Cromwell received an honorary law degree from Boston’s Suffolk University while 467 students received juris doctor and master of law degrees at the Law School commencement exercises. And in a few weeks, Mashpee citizen Stephanie Sfiridis will travel to Albuquerque to attend the Arizona State University’s Pre-law Summer Institute Program before jumping into the full Indian Legal Program at ASU’s main campus in Tempe, Arizona, in the fall.
Cromwell and Sfiridis were part of the Mashpee delegation attending the National Indian Gaming Association’s 2014 Indian Gaming Tradeshow & Conference in mid-May in San Diego where ICTMN caught up with them on the last day. Cromwell said the awarding of the honorary law degree is significant not only for himself but also for the tribe.
“When you look at our tribe, getting this doctorate in law from Suffolk University in Boston is so important because the university recognized the work that I do with our tribal nation in moving public policy, in moving law, in moving our rights in the State of Massachusetts,” Cromwell said. He pointed to some of the important “firsts” the tribe has achieved during the past five years of his tenure, including the first tribal compact in the state and the first – and only – commercial gaming bill in the United States that includes a tribal provision carve-out recognizing a federally recognized tribe.
“And that model was indicative of me sitting in that statehouse everyday promoting Indian law, Indian sovereignty, and the inevitability of our tribe having a casino [because we said], ‘If you don’t deal with this [exclusivity zone] now, whatever you work on in commercial gaming will be destroyed because when our tribe comes online you can’t compete with us – we’re going to pay zero [to the state] and as far as investments, rate of return, customer experience we can put more into that and generate more volume and a better experience … You can’t touch us,’” Cromwell said.
Suffolk University Law School has partnered with Mashpee is building its tribal court system, putting tribal codes in place and helping out tribal members that have specific civil cases within the tribal court, Cromwell said. He sees the relationship growing.
“We can work with them on many initiatives and economic development is a big one. I have a lot of ideas like free trade zones, bringing manufacturing back to the U.S. and so much more so than just Indian gaming.”
The tribe is waiting for the Bureau of Indian Affairs to act on its application to take 145 acres on land into trust in Taunton, Massachusetts, where it plans to build Project First Light, a $500 million destination resort casino. It’s the last requirement before putting shovels into the ground.
Sfiridis is currently an executive administrative assistant with the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Gaming Authority, but that will change once she’s earned her law degree.
“My goal is to come back and work for my community and for Indian country,” she said. “Things will be so different in three years for my tribe that there will be so many new opportunities.”
Sfiridis is 26 years old and has a B.A. in Communications from Central Connecticut State University. She said she’s been interested in studying law ever since watching the O.J. Simpson trial as a child and being fascinated by the courtroom, the witnesses, the evidence. “Although I could not completely comprehend the events unfolding at such a young age, I think this paved the way for my yearning to enter the legal field,” Sfiridis said.
Cromwell said he’s delighted at the prospect of having Mashpee attorneys working for the tribe.
“I’ve always talked about this – we need tribal lawyers in our tribe. We have many lawyers working for our tribe but wouldn’t it be great to have tribal lawyers who are Mashpees, who understand our public policy challenges, our governmental challenges and opportunities?” Cromwell said. “Stephanie is a great example. She’s been around all our undertakings, our public policies and law and referendums. She’s been around all these lawyers and it’s a natural progression for her to become a lawyer. Me – I’m a motivator. I’ve always said, ‘Yeah, I want you to study the law, look at what you’ve done, what you know.’ And then Suffolk recognizes me with a doctorate of law and it’s kind of like the Creator was looking out for us.”
Sfiridis said she hopes to be a role model for other young Natives. “I hope to teach them that anything is possible and if you get an opportunity take it and put yourself forward and it will help your community. The chairman has always encouraged that – he’s drilled that into my head and in every other youth he comes across. He thinks education is key and he’s been extremely supportive in every way he possibly can to push me in this direction.”
Cromwell said Sfiridis is “a living example” of the belief that anything is possible. “My goal for tribal members is for them to get as much education as they possibly can – but also to get into law – and come back and serve their tribe and really enhance our government, our tribal courts, our public policy and set a direct public benefit for our Mashpee Wampanoag people,” he said.
Now that he has a doctorate degree in law, will he insist on being addressed as Dr. Cromwell? No, doesn’t want to give up any title.
“You can call me Chairman Dr. Cromwell,” he said laughing.