WASHINGTON - The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe wants to build an S-shaped casino that would rise from a forested area in Taunton, and, Indian leaders say, lift them out of poverty.
One hurdle in their way is U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a West Coast Democrat who is seeking to curb tribal gaming expansion in her state of California, which is stalling casino projects throughout the country.
As leverage, Feinstein and other senators are using a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Carcieri v. Salazar, that jeopardized the legal standing of about 50 tribes because they weren’t recognized by the Department of the Interior before 1934. Congress could undo the ruling. So far, it hasn’t.
The Mashpee casino would be 38 miles from Boston and 20 miles from Providence, areas whose residents already have four gambling sites nearby from which to choose.
“What’s happening increasingly, the tribes petition to have lands taken into trust with the intent of getting closer and closer to big cities, so that it’s easier for them to garner people,” Feinstein said in an interview.
The Mashpee, who say they greeted the Pilgrims arriving from England in the 1600s, weren’t federally recognized until 2007 and have no reservation of their own.
Their plan to build a casino is a pathway to economic growth tilled by tribes from Connecticut to Arizona and endorsed by President Barack Obama, who has sought to break a logjam of Indian gaming projects accumulated during the Bush administration, which imposed restrictions on them.
Obama outlined his goal of boosting tribal economies in his fourth annual address to Indian leaders on Dec. 5, 2012, when he said he “was committed to getting this relationship right so that your nations can be full partners in our economy and your children can have a fair shot at pursuing the American Dream.” Native Americans had an unemployment rate of 12.3 percent last year, compared with 6.6 percent for non-Hispanic whites.
Indian gaming advocates and opponents alike see the Supreme Court ruling as one of the last major impediments to bringing tribal casinos to lucrative metropolitan areas.
The Obama administration has expanded the definition of games that can be played at Indian facilities, including Las Vegas-style bingo that state leaders say undermine anti-gambling laws. The Interior Department, which regulates Indian gaming issues, also is easing restrictions on casino operations located outside of a tribe’s historic borders.
If those dynamics are combined with legislation that overcomes the Supreme Court Carcieri ruling, dozens more tribes would have a quicker path through the administration’s eased pipeline to casino approval.
The court decision has provided “a way to slow down the development of off-reservation casinos,” said Adam Bond, an attorney for Taunton-area citizens opposed to the Mashpee project. “If Congress takes it up, they should use it as an opportunity to re-examine whether the policy of tribes opening casinos has accomplished the goal of improving the lifestyle of tribal members. I don’t think it has.”