US Interior Department Rejects Wampanoag’s First Light Casino

First Light Casino Denied by DOI

The Wampanoag Tribe is the one depicted in American history as having the first Thanksgiving dinner with the Pilgrims.

The U.S. Department of the Interior issued an opinion on the Wampanoag Tribe’s development plan for the First Light Casino in Taunton, Massachusetts this week which was a disaster for the tribe. The ruling stated that no evidence existed that the Wampanoag Tribe was “under Federal jurisdiction” in 1934, an important distinction to tribal casino operators.

Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney published a 28-page letter to the Wampanoag Tribe of Massachusetts, which stated: “The Department has evaluated the parties’ submissions within the framework established by the Department’s Office of the Solicitor (Solicitor) for that purpose.”

“Based on my review and consideration of these submissions, I cannot conclude that the Tribe was ‘under Federal jurisdiction’ in 1934. As a result, the Tribe does not satisfy the ‘under Federal jurisdiction’ requirement of the first definition of ‘Indian,’ and it also does not satisfy such requirement with respect to the second definition as that definition has been interpreted by the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts.”

The decision ended the tribe’s 7-year attempt to build a tribal casino in Taunton. The decision drew rebukes from Native American tribes across the United States, which have seen a series of reverses from the U.S. Interior Department the past couple of years.

Tara Sweeney’s DOI Opinion tweeted, “Bad news for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, whose ancestors welcomed the Pilgrims. The Trump administration will be taking the tribe’s land out of trust, a first since the termination era.”

Tara Sweeney’s opinion also appears to open the door to a third commercial casino in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. When Massachusetts voters approved a statewide referendum to establish land-based casinos in 2011, they authorized up to three casinos in Massachusetts.

No More Than 3 Massachusetts Casinos

Seven years after that authorization, only two Massachusetts casino licenses have been approved: Encore Boston Harbor in the Boston suburb of Everett and the MGM Springfield in western Massachusetts.

Massachusetts casino gaming laws states that the Gaming Commission can authorize “no more than” three brick-and-mortar casinos. For the past several years, the First Light Casino project in Taunton was considered to be the third casino. The Massachusetts Gaming Commission ruled that the Wampanoag Tribe’s development plan fulfilled all requirements.

Wampanoag Tribe and Genting Group

The U.S. Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs also ruled on behalf of the First Light Casino’s plan, which was underwritten by Genting Limited Group, a multinational conglomerate out of a Malaysia. Despite an attempt by Rush Street Gaming to secure a license for a Brockton casino, the First Light Casino had the favor of state and federal officials.

In 2015, a group of Taunton residents brought a lawsuit which challenged the DOI’s decision to put the land in trust. The Taunton group won their case, which stopped development of the casino. The tribe filed an appeal in the case, then asked the Department of the Interior to look over the case again from its perspective.

US Department of Justice Decision

On June 26, 2017, the Wampanoag Tribe withdrew its request for a reevaluation from the Department of the Interior. By then, the DOI had ruled against Native American tribes in several other cases, including Connecticut and New Mexico, so the tribe feared a negative decision on the First Light Casino.

Days later, the Department of the Interior reopened the case on its own accord, rejecting the tribe’s decision to withdraw its request. The Wampanoag had until Nov. 13, 2017 to submit its case for federal review, which it did last November. In the 10 months since, the tribe has waited for an answer to the case.

The End for First Light Casino?

Now it has that answer, which appeared to have dashed the Wampanoag Tribe’s hopes to build a tribal casino in Massachusetts. Debts have mounted as the original construction project’s loans neared fruition. As long as the tribe had a chance to repay those debts with a lucrative land casino, the financiers were patient. In light of the new decision, First Light Casino might have to be scrapped.

If so, then it opens the door for a third commercial casino in Massachusetts. Any commercial casino would be sited in southeastern Massachusetts near the Rhode Island border. It is unknown if Rush Street Gaming would be interested in reapplying for a Brockton license or if Genting would pursue a commercial casino. At the moment, all options are on the table.