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A proposed tribal casino in Massachusetts was dealt a crushing blow by the Department of Interior last week. However, the DOI ruling has likely opened the door for another commercial casino in Massachusetts.
To explain what is transpiring in Massachusetts it’s best to start at the beginning.
Massachusetts legalized casino gambling back in 2011 the legislature placed several restrictions on the number of commercial casinos the state could license.
The hard cap was to prevent the market from becoming over-saturated.
Per the law, the state of Massachusetts was divided up into three zones. The Massachusetts Gaming Commission (another creation of the law) would grant a license to up to one casino in each zone, along with a singular slot parlor.
The MGC was tasked with selecting what it felt was the best eligible proposal in each zone, and what was best for the new casino industry overall.
The expectation from that process was Massachusetts would possess three full-scale destination casinos and a slot parlor.
Seven years later, only two casino licenses have been awarded.
The “no more than” part of the law was due to an unknown: the very real possibility of a tribal casino being built in the state.
The third commercial casino license was mothballed by the MGC after the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe met all the requirements (or so it thought) to build the First Light Casino in Taunton, Massachusetts. The tribal casino was bankrolled by a partnership with casino giant Genting.
That third license could be back on the table following a ruling by the Department of the Interior; the latest in a string of rulings that have gone against the tribe.
Everything appeared to be going smoothly for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe.
The Department of Interior had signed off on the tribe’s request to have its land taken into trust, and the Mashpee Wampanoag entered into a gaming compact with the state of Massachusetts.
That’s when the wheels came off.
And all the while the tribe has been accruing mounting debt.
The long-awaited DOI decision was finally issued last week, and made public by the Cape Cod Times.
Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney penned the 28-page letter to the tribe, and came to the following conclusion:
“The Department has evaluated the parties’ submissions within the framework established by the Department’s Office of the Solicitor (Solicitor) for that purpose. Based on my review and consideration of these submissions, I cannot conclude that the Tribe was “under Federal jurisdiction” in 1934. As a result, the Tribe does not satisfy the “under Federal jurisdiction” requirement of the first definition of “Indian,” and it also does not satisfy such requirement with respect to the second definition as that definition has been interpreted by the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts.”
The unprecedented action has met with harsh criticism from Indian Country.
Bad news for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, whose ancestors welcomed the Pilgrims. The Trump administration will be taking the tribe’s land out of trust, a first since the termination era. #Massachusetts https://t.co/VOlgcyGJGq
— indianz.com (@indianz) September 7, 2018
"This would be the 1st time since the termination era that Interior has taken land out of trust & disestablished a reservation," [Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Chair] Cromwell told fellow tribal leaders at the meeting. "I hope everyone in Indian Country sees what is happening to us." https://t.co/YPzbe914sq
— Chris Stearns (@stearnsseattle) July 19, 2018
The decision was a major blow to the tribe, which is quickly running out of options, but maintains it will continue to fight.
The tribe’s casino hopes now rest in the hands of Congress; a legislative body with a lot of big issues on its plate and not known for taking swift action.
Members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation introduced bills in the House and Senate this year that would reaffirm the Mashpee Wampanoag’s tribal land.
Now all they have to do is convince a majority of two legislative chambers to care about the casino aspirations of a small tribe in southeastern Massachusetts.
With federal action unlikely, the MGC may restart the licensing process for the third commercial casino.
Some likely contenders for that license are: