The Hill Article: Congress knocks Trump administration’s decision to remove Native American lands from federal trust April 6, 2020

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Eighteen members of Congress sent a letter to Senators Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer condemning the decision.

By Alexandra Kelley

Story at a glance

  • Eighteen members of Congress signed a letter calling the DOI’s decision to rescind federal protection from Native American lands into question.
  • The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe has inhabited their land for 12,000 years.

Members of Congress sent a letter last week addressing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) over the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI)’s recent disestablishment of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s land by removing it from federal trust, and thereby revoking federal funding and benefits from the tribe. 

The tribe received notification of the status change from the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs two weeks ago on Friday.

The current letter, dated April 3, was signed by 18 sitting members, including Reps. Ayanna Pressley and Joe Kennedy III, both Democrats from Massachusetts, where the Mashpee Wampanoag’s land is located.

The Mashpee Wampanoag have lived on their land for more than 12,000 years, predating the U.S. government, according to the letter. Lawmakers in the letter called on the Senate to take up the 2019 Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act, which would guarantee the trust status of the 320 acres of tribal land. It also referenced a bill that would recognize the Mashpee Wampanoag under the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act.

Both bills were passed by the House of Representatives in May 2019. 

Members of Congress also pointed out that it is “highly objectionable” that the DOI would rescind the tribal land’s status during the global coronavirus pandemic. The Navajo Nation recently declared a public health state of emergency on March 11, but Native Americans still have a higher risk of contracting a severe infection of COVID-19 due to disproportionate levels of preexisting conditions among the population. 

Many Native American communities are also unequipped with the necessary infrastructure to effectively track the coronavirus and conduct medical surveillance.

“The circumstances in which the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe now find themselves only serves as a reminder of the history of unfair treatment by the federal government with respect to this Tribe,” the letter reads. “The current situation further demonstrates the systemic way the Mashpee Wampanoag people have suffered unnecessary and indescribable cruelty.”