The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s stalled plans to build a major casino-resort on reservation lands in Massachusetts could be revived after the U.S. Department of the Interior’s (DOI) assistant secretary for Indian affairs confirmed the legal status of the tribe’s reservation.
The tribe’s First Light Resort & Casino remains a vacant construction site within East Taunton, but the tribe have indicated they are still collaborating with Malaysian-based Genting Group’s Massachusetts affiliate to build the $1bn project, according to city attorney David Gay.
In a letter to the city council prior to the DOI’s decision, Gay said he had had several conversations with the tribe’s lawyer, Rebekah Salguero. He said the tribe have confirmed they want to resume construction on the long-delayed project.
Gay said that he and the mayor’s chief of staff, Ed Correia, met with officials from both the tribe and Genting Massachusetts and received assurances they are still working together on the development.
Genting owns several U.S. casinos, including Resorts World properties in New York and Las Vegas.
“This matter has taken some time to proceed but it is moving forward,” Gay wrote. He noted that the DOI’s decision will “facilitate the next steps in the construction of the project.”
The Mashpee have faced a series of legal and regulatory setbacks over the planned resort that was to have three hotels and 3,000 slot machines.
The 55-page Bureau of Indian Affairs decision released on December 22 confirmed the legal status of the tribe’s reservation land but has not put an end to legal efforts by residents to block the tribe from building a casino-resort in Taunton.
A group of Taunton residents has asked a federal judge in Washington, D.C. to reopen their lawsuit over the DOI’s decision to take land into trust for the tribe’s proposed casino. Law360 reported Wednesday that the lawsuit was filed on January 1.
Messages left with Mashpee chairman Brian Weeden were not returned.
The residents were successful in their initial claim that the Obama administration erred by originally taking 321 acres of land in Taunton and Mashpee into trust for the tribe as their sovereign reservation.
A federal judge in Boston ruled in favor of the residents in July 2016. The decision was based on a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court judgment in Carcieri v Salazar that prevents the U.S. government from taking land into trust for tribes that were federally recognized after the enactment of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934.
The U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston in March 2020 upheld the lower court ruling to overturn a land-into-trust designation for the tribe.
The Trump administration reversed the Obama administration’s decision in 2018 and ordered that the land be taken out of trust. But U.S. District Court Judge Paul Friedman in June 2020 reversed the court decision saying it was “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, and contrary to law.”
The Trump administration appealed the ruling. But the Biden administration withdrew the appeal in February 2021, paving the way for the DOI’s decision to again put the tribe’s land into trust.
Weeden said he was grateful to the Biden administration for the decision to grant the Mashpee control over their tribal lands.
“This is a momentous day for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, for indigenous communities across the countries, and for defenders of justice,” Weeden said in a statement issued after last month’s decision.
Weeden praised federal officials who “have faithfully implemented the law and respected the sovereign rights of our tribe to protect our reservation.”
Massachusetts legalized commercial casinos in 2011 when then Democratic Governor Deval Patrick signed the Expanded Gaming Act. The new law broke the state into three regions, with Wynn Resorts' Encore Boston Harbor and MGM Springfield selected for casino-resort developments in two of the regions and the Mashpee tribe granted preference for a tribal casino in so-called Region C.
The Massachusetts Gaming Commission (MGC) has yet to approve a casino-resort license for Region C even though Rush Street Gaming has expressed an interest in applying for the license as the Mashpee tribe have so far failed to secure definitive legal approval for a project.
MGC spokeswoman Sarah Magazine told VIXIO GamblingCompliance on Wednesday that the federal government’s decision regarding the Mashpee’s reservation would not affect the commission moving forward with a third gaming license.
“The statute allows that the commission may issue not more than three category 1 licenses, including one in Region C, irrespective of a tribal development,” Magazine said.
Federal Law Confirms North Carolina Tribal Casino
In another significant tribal gaming development in late December, President Biden on December 27 signed into law the Catawba Indian Nation Lands Act, which was included in the National Defense Authorization Act, which authorizes military spending.
The new legislation brings another dispute over a major tribal casino project to an end by affirming the legality of a casino in North Carolina by the South Carolina-based Catawba Indian Nation.
“The new law also confirms that the Catawba Nation is subject to the well-established rules and regulations of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) on their modern and ancestral lands in the state of North Carolina,” Catawba chief Bill Harris said in a statement.
The tribe, which operate bingo in South Carolina, have sought to build a $273m casino in North Carolina, citing their historical ties to the state. The DOI put 17 acres in trust in early 2020 for the project.
The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians own two established tribal casinos in North Carolina and sued the Catawba and the Interior Department last year to try and stop the Two Kings Casino project.
A federal judge ruled in favor of the Catawba in the case, but the passage of the federal law as part of the defense spending bill protects the tribal casino from any further litigation.
There is already a temporary Catawba casino up and running in North Carolina, and the tribe expect to continue planning for a permanent casino.