On a sunny April day, nearly two years ago, an excavator knocked down a building in Taunton where the Mashpee Wampanoags were about to start building a casino, as members of the tribe stood by and cheered. But now, all of that’s come to a stop. A group of Taunton residents filed a lawsuit, saying that the Interior Department didn’t have the authority to allow a reservation for the Wampanoags. In July, 2016, a judge agreed with those plaintiffs, and sent the ruling back to the Interior Department, which hasn’t said what it's going to do.

This week, Massachusetts Senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren introduced a bill that would go around the Interior Department and grant the tribe the right to a sovereign reservation, allowing them to build a casino in Taunton. A similar bill was introduced in the U.S. House last week. The proposed legislation is the latest in a long-running legal debate over tribe’s land.

“We finally, after all these years, get trust lands, and we still have trust lands. And here we go again getting challenged," said the tribe's chairman, Cedric Cromwell. "And people should know the history of the tribe by now. So this bill steps in and says, you know, enough. Here’s trust lands for the tribe.”

The tribe had expected to open the first casino in the state. But with the legal challenges dragging on and on, and casinos in Springfield and Everett getting closer to opening, they’ve lost that advantage. And along the way, they’re getting deeper in debt, although they won’t say exactly how much.

“It cost us a lot of money to survive and fight for our rights," Cromwell said. "Millions and millions and millions and millions and millions of dollars. So we, along with the investors, have looked at our spending and said, 'let's really cut it back, let's focus on the essentials.' You know, we've had to do reduction in force to become more efficient.”

The Mashpee Wampanoag tribal seal, in the tribe's Government Center in Mashpee
Craig LeMoult/WGBH

Cromwell said for now, the investors are sticking with them. But if the tribe loses its reservation and can’t build a casino, they’re going to have a hard time paying all that money back. They also worry they’ll lose access to some of the programs they have now because they’re considered a sovereign nation — like their Wampanoag-language preschool. The tribe’s vice-chairman, Jessie Little Doe Baird, said the teachers at the school here are Montessori-trained but don’t require costly state licensing.

 “We have that school and a right to that school because we are on sovereign land," she said. "If we lose our trust, our school will close.” She said they could also lose federal low-income housing funds and other programs that are available to tribes.

Michelle Littlefield is one of the 25 plaintiffs who sued the Interior Department. She said the Mashpee Wampanoags just don’t qualify for a reservation. “They were not removed from their lands," Littlefield said. "They are not recognized under the 1934 Reorganization Act. They chose to be state citizens and thus they are. Period. The tribe does not qualify for land in trust. My problem is not with the tribe. My problem is with our federal government breaking its own laws.”

Despite the fact that the court agreed with her, these new bills in the Senate and House would give the tribe its reservation, along with the right to build a casino there. And it would throw out any lawsuits challenging that.  

“I think it's an outrageous end run around the Department of Interior and Judge Young's ruling that the Mashpees do not qualify under the law to have lands taken into trust," Littlefield said. "The matter remains in the courts where it belongs. It's not for Congress or the Senate or the House or anyone else to overrule a court decision.”

But Congress does actually have the right to pass the law. But getting that done may be difficult.

“I think it's going to be tough for any legislation towards the end of this Congress going forward,” said Congressman Bill Keating, who introduced the bill in the House, though he said the bill does have bipartisan support. 

Keating said he was moved to introduce the bill because he heard rumors that the Interior Department is about to reverse its initial decision, taking away the tribe’s land in trust. “[The bill is] really there to make sure that should the Interior start to make some of these moves, taking back something that they've already given, this is in place for a very swift action, should that occur,” he said.

But nearly two years after the Mashpee Wampanoags knocked down a building at their initial groundbreaking, with the fate of the tribe and its casino still uncertain, it doesn’t seem like any action is likely to happen all that swiftly.