Tribe’s Middleboro casino plan plan may hit roadblock

Kyle Alspach

The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe may be facing an uphill battle in trying to get a casino approved under the Bush administration, several gambling researchers say.

The tribe, which is seeking the federal go-ahead to open a casino in Middleboro, may suffer setbacks due to the stance being taken by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Last Friday, the bureau shot down proposals from 11 tribes to open casinos at sites off their reservations.

Though the cases don’t directly apply to the Mashpee Wampanoag proposal, the rejections may still signal trouble ahead for the tribe, says Kathryn Rand, a University of North Dakota law professor and tribal gaming researcher.

‘‘This indicates some general unfriendliness (from the federal government) toward gaming on newly acquired lands,’’ Rand said. ‘‘It says that not only are there a number of legal obstacles, there are also a number of political obstacles.’’

The Indian Affairs bureau reviews applications by tribes that want to put property into federal trust - a process that makes the land sovereign and frees it from taxation. The tribes, which must be federally recognized, are often seeking to open a casino on the land.

The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe has filed an application to place about 550 acres near Route 44 in Middleboro into federal trust, where the tribe and its investors hope to open a $1 billion resort casino complex. The tribe is also trying to place about 100 acres in the town of Mashpee into federal trust. That land contains tribal headquarters, a museum and other buildings.

The tribe wants both parcels of land, which are 40 miles apart, to be considered its ‘‘reservation.’’ As a result, the rejection of off-reservation casino proposals by the Indian Affairs bureau does not directly apply.

Still, the bureau may not look favorably upon the tribe’s proposal to have two reservations, according to William Eadington, a gambling researcher at the University of Nevada-Reno.

It’s clear that the tribe has engaged in what is known as ‘‘reservation shopping’’ - finding a good site for a casino and then proposing to make that site its reservation, Eadington said.

The federal government is ‘‘going to be suspicious of a claimed reservation in an ideal location for a casino,’’ Rand said.

The Mashpee tribe and its investors remain confident that the casino proposal will proceed as planned and win approval by fall 2009, according to Scott Ferson, a spokesman paid by the investors.

Because of the timetable, the recent actions of President Bush’s Indian Affairs bureau are ‘‘immaterial’’ to the Mashpee situation, Ferson said.

‘‘We’re not ultimately going to get (a final decision) until the next administration,’’ Ferson said.

Several gambling researchers said the leanings of the current Indian Affairs bureau can affect the Mashpee plan, however.

The bureau has the authority to slow down the tribe’s application process or even do nothing, said researcher Clyde Barrow of UMass-Dartmouth.

‘‘They could just sit on it, and say it’s under review,’’ Barrow said.

The bureau could also take issue with the proposal for two reservations and force the Mashpee tribe to choose one of them, he said.

While technically the land in Middleboro is part of the tribe’s ancestral homelands - a key requirement - it’s being proposed as a reservation only for the purpose of building a casino, Barrow said.

In addition, although the Mashpee Wampanoags are hoping to win approval for the casino within two years, the Indian Affairs bureau often takes three or more years to issue a decision on land-into-trust applications, Rand said.

Apart from federal hurdles, the Mashpee tribe also faces uncertainty over the Legislature moving to legalize full-scale casino gambling in Massachusetts.

Kyle Alspach may be reached at

The Enterprise