BOSTON (AP) — The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe said Tuesday that a recent legal opinion from the U.S. Interior Department could provide a major boost to its hopes of building a resort casino in Taunton.
Hilary Tompkins, the department's solicitor, said in the memorandum dated March 12 that tribes did not have to be federally recognized before 1934 in order to be eligible to have land taken into trust by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The opinion was an attempt to clarify the department's interpretation of a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court ruling stating that the government was barred from taking land into trust for tribes that were not under federal jurisdiction in 1934, the year Congress passed a law specifying rights of self-government for tribes.
The court's decision in the case known as Carcieri v. Salazar involved a land dispute between the state of Rhode Island and the Narragansett Indian tribe.
The Mashpee, a landless tribe, has applied to have the proposed casino site in Taunton taken into trust by the federal government. Since the tribe did not receive federal recognition until 2007, questions have been raised about whether the phrase "under federal jurisdiction" in 1934 meant the tribe was ineligible for land in trust.
"That contention is legally incorrect," Tompkins wrote in her opinion.
The solicitor noted that the high court left vague the meaning of "federal jurisdiction," and that the term could apply to other historical interactions between a tribe and the federal government, such as treaties.
Cedric Cromwell, chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Council, said the memorandum backed the tribe's own interpretation of the Supreme Court ruling.
"We believe that this legal opinion will go a long way toward helping our tribe and so many other tribes get land placed into trust," Cromwell said in a statement.
The tribe has also said it can prove ancestral ties to the Taunton land, another requirement for the land-in-trust designation.
The state's 2011 casino law that permits up to three regional resort casinos in Massachusetts gave preference in the southeastern region for a federally-recognized tribe. The state gambling commission has since opened the door to the possibility of licensing a commercial casino developer in the region if the Mashpee was unable to show progress in securing federal approval.
The tribe cleared another hurdle in January when the bureau approved a revised casino compact the tribe negotiated with Gov. Deval Patrick.