The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe rang in 2016 with jubilation as the government officially recorded the tribe's reservation land in the Federal Register, bringing its casino dreams closer to reality.
Going into 2017, the plan to build a casino on 151 acres of tribal sovereign land in East Taunton remains threatened by a lawsuit filed by nearby residents in February. While the 22 neighbors hope to put a stop to the planned $600 million casino - which will feature 300 hotel rooms, 3,000 slot machines, 150 table games and 40 poker tables - there's much more than a gambling venue hanging in the balance for the Wampanoag.
The lawsuit alleges that the federal government broadly interpreted its authority and created "unprecedented" definitions of what constitutes an Indian and a reservation in approving the tribe's application for land in trust, which includes 170 acres in Mashpee, including its headquarters, burial grounds, museum and a tract set aside for future affordable housing.
The tribe has strong spiritual and cultural ties to the land dating back 12,000 years, Tribal Council Chairman Cedric Cromwell wrote in an August court brief, and the Wampanoag have a substantial financial interest at stake - the opportunity presented by the sovereign land will translate into economic development for the entirety of the 2,500-member tribe.
The lawsuit is funded partially by a casino developer who had hoped to build a casino in Brockton, just 20 miles from the Wampanoag's planned First Light project. The battle between the two proposed Southeastern Massachusetts casinos was waged during the first half of 2016. The state Gaming Commission ultimately rejected the Brockton plan they considered underwhelming due to the unpredictable competition of having two casinos in such close proximity to each other.
The casino broke ground in April. While the lawsuit has effectively stopped construction, which was slated to be complete in 2017, work on infrastructure improvements continued.
The tribe's plans hit a roadblock in August when U.S. District Court Judge William Young rejected the way the agency took land into trust for the Mashpee tribe. But in October he opened the door for the Bureau of Indian Affairs to explore another path for sovereign land for the Wampanoag.
The question now is whether the Mashpee tribe was under federal jurisdiction in 1934. While the tribe was federally recognized in 2007, the distinction between jurisdiction and recognition was clarified in a separate August ruling involving the Cowlitz tribe of Washington.
The federal government is set to continue gathering evidence in support of or against that notion from both the tribe and the East Taunton residents through February and potentially securing the tribe's future plans.