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Native Americans fear govt 'attack' on tribal land amid coronavirus

by Gregory Scruggs | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 3 April 2020 17:02 GMT

The move to revoke a U.S. tribe’s reservation status makes its members more vulnerable to coronavirus, experts say

By Gregory Scruggs

SEATTLE, April 3 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Native Americans slammed a decision by the U.S. government to revoke a tribe's reservation status, which they warned would leave them without control over their land and place them at increased risk during the coronavirus pandemic.

The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs told the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe last week that its 321 acres of land in Massachusetts would no longer be held in federal trust and lose its official recognition - a common arrangement for indigenous reservations.

"All of a sudden we'll have no jurisdiction over our schools or housing," the tribe's chairman, Cedric Cromwell, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview.

The Cape Cod-based tribe stands to lose $12 million in tax credits that were earmarked to develop a 52-unit low-income housing project and a casino in the town of Taunton, Cromwell said.

The move to terminate the tribe's reservation status makes its roughly 2,600 members more vulnerable to the novel coronavirus, warned Kevin Allis, head of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), the oldest and largest tribal umbrella group.

The deadly respiratory disease, which emerged in China late last year, has infected about 250,000 people in the United States and killed about 6,500, according to a Reuters tally.

The U.S. government's decision comes "at a time when tribal governments are desperately working to protect the health of their citizens and the economic security of their communities", Allis said in a statement.

"They shouldn't also have to contend with attacks on their tribal homelands from the very trustee that is legally obligated to protect those homelands," he added, with Cromwell calling the move a "sneak attack in the midst of a pandemic".

Cases of the coronavirus have been confirmed among indigenous people in Colombia, Brazil and Malaysia, fanning fears of a rapid spread among communities with little immunity to diseases and limited healthcare access.

The Department of Interior said that the Mashpee Wampanoag "remains a federally recognized tribe".

"This decision does not affect the federal recognition status of the tribe, only Interior's statutory authority to accept the land in trust," it said in a statement this week.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs did not respond to a request for comment.


The Mashpee Wampanoag hold a special place in U.S. history as the tribe that first met the European settlers known as Pilgrims and participated in the feast now commemorated as Thanksgiving.

Yet it was not until 2015 - four centuries later - that they were allowed to hold land under a trust administered by the federal government, which only recognized them as a tribe eight years earlier.

The government's move to revoke the tribe's status could set a dangerous precedent for other tribes' sovereignty over their land, said Agnes Portalewska, spokeswoman for rights watchdog Cultural Survival.

"This would mark the first time native land has been taken out of trust since the 'termination era' of the 1940s to 1960s in which the U.S. government intentionally attempted to assimilate Native Americans into the broader culture," she said.

Cromwell likened the decision to a "test case for the administration to do a land grab".

The Mashpee Wampanoag requested an emergency injunction against the government's decision in federal court this week and expects a hearing in mid-May.

"We survived the smallpox epidemic," Cromwell said. "We are the tribe Thanksgiving was created around."


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(Reporting by Gregory Scruggs, Editing by Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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