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Indigenous Peoples Month and Thanksgiving both take place in November. Yet, tribal gaming has never been so strong. So why have the Mashpee Wampanoags of Massachusetts, the Indians that met the Pilgrims for that first Thanksgiving, been unable to make their dream come true? Here’s the story about the Wampanoags First Thanksgiving and Casino.
The gaming industry has enabled many tribes across the country to reverse extreme poverty, provide for tribal members’ health and education, preserve Native cultures, and achieve meaningful goals that were previously unattainable. Yet, stories and myths of the first Thanksgiving reveal different interpretations.
So how did that First Thanksgiving go?
What Was The Wampanoags First Thanksgiving REALLY Like?
Too often, historical accuracy is changed in folklore depending on who is telling the story. For example, in A Disney classic, Pocahontas tells the story of an English soldier and the daughter of an Algonquin chief as they become romantically involved when the English colonists invade Virginia in the 17th Century. In the film, Pocahontas and John Smith are both adults. However, history records that Pocahontas was roughly ten years old at the time Smith arrived. Not necessarily the best facts for a children’s film.
We are familiar with the story of the 1621 Thanksgiving from the Pilgrims’ point of view. But, unfortunately, the Wampanoag tribe’s story is usually presented in a concise or distorted way.
Related Article – What Happened at the 1st Thanksgiving
According to a Plimoth Plantation timeline, the Mayflower arrived at Plymouth Harbor on December 16, 1620. The Pilgrims settled in a Wampanoag village abandoned four years after a deadly plague outbreak by European traders who first appeared in the area in 1616. The museum’s literature tells that before 1616, the Wampanoag numbered 50,000 to 100,000, occupying 69 villages scattered throughout southeastern Massachusetts and eastern Rhode Island. The plague, however, killed thousands, up to two-thirds of them. Many also had been captured and sold as slaves.
You may be asking yourself, “What does the story about the Wampanoags First Thanksgiving and have to do with casino gambling?” Read on.
Related Article – The Wampanoag Side of the First Thanksgiving Story
The Mashpee Wampanoags – “Not Real Indians?”
In contrast to the warm and fuzzy story of the first Thanksgiving, the Mashpee Wampanoags tribe has experienced difficulty with the process of federal recognition and building a casino. Massachusetts withdrew recognition during the 1800s.
From 1870 to the present, the Mashpee Tribe has maintained continuous title to and possession of critical tracts of land within the historic Mashpee reservation. But even in 1946, the U.S. Navy moved to condemn Mashpee beach lands for military training and uses temporarily.
The Mashpee Wampanoags won federal recognition in 2007, which allowed the Interior Secretary to grant them a reservation. However, lawsuits claimed it was wrong to take Mashpee’s land into trust. Why? Because the Mashpee Wampanoags” did not fit the definition of Indian.” Even though they are recognized as the same Native American Tribe that we remember for the first Thanksgiving. The Wampanoags First Thanksgiving and Casino are seemingly intertwined with irony.
The Facts About Tribal Gaming
First of all, let’s look at how gaming rights occurred for tribal nations. How did it all come about? The following is from the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association:
“Indian tribes have the right to conduct gaming activities on tribal lands because they are sovereign nations, as recognized in the U.S. Constitution, with the retained right to govern themselves. Before the United States existed, tribes governed themselves, provided for their people, and negotiated treaties with other nations. The U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1789, specifically recognizes the sovereignty of Indian nations, along with foreign nations and the ‘several states’ meaning Indian tribes are equal to, not subservient to, states and foreign nations.”
“The Supreme Court affirmed this right in 1987, and the next year Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA), proclaiming that tribes must be the “sole owner and primary beneficiary” of Indian gaming activities. To begin gaming operations, each tribe then had to reach an agreement – called a compact – with its respective state government.”
Related Post – Pride and Prejudice of New England Tribal Gaming
Wampanoags First Thanksgiving and Casino – A Casino Timeline
Here is a timeline of the events that occurred next:
- 2016 – The Wampanoag’s Project “First Light,” a large casino complex, begins construction.
- Later that year, however, a court overturned the land-into-trust approval, and work on the project was suspended.
- The casino remained in legal limbo as of 2019.
- March of 2020 – the U.S. Interior Dept has removed the tribe’s reservation status which effectively ended this casino project.
- June 5, 2020 – a U.S. district judge stopped the Department Of the Interior (DOI) from moving the Mashpee Wampanoag land out of federal trust and ordered the DOI to “review the matter and issue new findings.”
- February 2021 – The U.S. Department of Interior withdrew its appeal of the June 2020 ruling, thus leaving the Mashpee casino land in federal trust. This was a major victory for the tribe and a greenlight to proceed with the casino project.
- Current Status – The First Light Casino project for Taunton, MA is no longer on hold and can proceed with its plans to build a 150,000 sq-ft casino and a 12-story hotel south of Boston.
Industry Opposition – Wampanoag First Light
Initially, the Expanded Gaming Act of 2013 included four casinos – two commercial, one tribal, and one slots-only. However, low, unexpected revenue production and many factors produced only two commercial and one slots-only casino. In addition, the Wampanoag casino obstacles and the Covid pandemic made it impossible for the First Light project to see any progress.
Encore Boston Harbor would have the most significant concern with the First Light Casino project. The Encore Boston is currently the largest casino in Massachusetts, with 2800 game machines. However, Project First Light Resort & Casino could take this title if it opens, with over 3000 gaming options expected to be available. Just the proximity alone would raise the bar of competition. It would be only 50 minutes away from Encore Boston Harbor. It would provide aggressive competition for Plainridge Park, the slots-only parlor in Plainville, MA.
Ballys Twin River in Lincoln, Rhode Island, and sister property Ballys Tiverton would also feel threatened. Rhode Island’s casinos are the state’s third-biggest source of tax revenue, and its legislators are anxious to protect them from the competition.
In all, five casino properties in Massachusetts and Rhode Island would be within an hour of each other with the addition of the Wampanoags First Light casino. In addition, Wampanoags Casino would be a future concern.
First Light Project Specifics
The plan includes a 150,000 sq-ft casino with 3,000 slots, 150 table games and 40 poker tables, two 12-story hotel towers with 300 rooms each, an indoor/Outdoorpater park, a family water park hotel, and many restaurants. For the original four-phase plan, click HERE.
The Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe – Still Waiting
The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) is still planning a small gaming facility in Martha’s Vineyard. But the tribe’s progress has hit a pretty big wall.
The Aquinnah tribe announced plans in 2013 for a gaming facility in an unfinished community center. The state quickly sued to block the project, arguing that the tribe gave up gambling rights in a 1983 land settlement, in which the tribe agreed its lands would be subject to state law. The tribe argued that the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act superseded this agreement. The tribe prevailed in the legal fight in 2018 and began moving ahead with plans to build the casino at a new site on their reservation.
The 10,0000-square-foot casino would feature 250 electronic gaming machines that operate under Class II bingo-type rules. The federal government approved their application for “Class II” gambling – the state sued to block it.
In January 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the state’s case against the Aquinnah Tribe. But in 2019, a federal court case filed by the Martha Vineyard Commission ruled the Aquinnah tribe must abide by local zoning laws and acquire proper building permits, reaffirmed in a Feb 2021 appeals court decision.
In what seemed a final blow, On April 19, 2021, the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) suffered a setback when a federal appeals court rejected the tribe’s request to build the Aquinnah Cliffs Casino in Martha’s Vineyard.
Tribes may have sovereignty, but they have had a tough year due to Covid-19. Tribal economies also collapsed as casinos closed, depriving health care, education, housing, elder programs, and other member services. It’s time to allow tribal sovereignty and land trusts to do what they are supposed to do.
Let’s hope this Thanksgiving we will all share in our commonalities so we all can prosper and grow.