Wuneekeesuq Neetopak. Good day my friends. I want to thank Chairman Panagiotakos and members of the committee for allowing me to submit this testimony. I particularly want to praise the Senate for its thoughtful approach to expanded gaming. The process of consideration that has led to this draft bill has been open, transparent and respectful of all sides. Most importantly it has been focused on what is most important – namely, expanded economic development in the Commonwealth.
As Chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, I want to express my strong support for the Senate’s draft gaming legislation in particular, and the Commonwealth’s efforts to expand casino gaming in general.
As you know, the Tribe has a proposal to develop a destination resort casino in Fall River. Before I outline some of the specifics of our proposal, I would like to offer a bit of background on the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, since there has been some confusion about various tribes.
I am a direct descendant of Osamequin, Chief Yellow Feather, great Massasoit of the Wampanoag Nation, whose image appears on the seal of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Indeed, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, known as the People of the First Light, has inhabited Massachusetts for more than 12,000 years. Our ancestors greeted explorers from Europe, and assisted the Pilgrims to survive their first harsh winters here. We treated European settlers with respect and human dignity and expected the same in return.
Unfortunately, the romanticized stories of that period do not tell the whole truth about the effect European settlement had on the tribe. For starters, European settlers brought with them foreign diseases that decimated our population. What’s worse, in the years after 1620 our land was stripped away from us while a series of governments – colonial, state, and federal – presided over attempts to not only take our land, but remove any trace of us from this part of the country.
That legacy was underscored for me recently, when U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar visited Cape Cod to see firsthand the sites where our ancient ancestors first greeted the rising sun. The pristine beaches, once a sacred place for our tribal members, are now dominated by million dollar vacation homes and exclusive country clubs.
I will not cite the long history of injustice that was wrought on our people as the result of European colonization and expansion. But I mention it only to emphasize the strong determination and perseverance that it took for our people to remain in our homeland and maintain a strong tribal community, even as we were surrounded by increasing development.
Despite this legacy, the people of my tribe are loyal citizens of the United States of America and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. But they are also citizens of a sovereign tribal nation.
In 2007, after a 30 year application process, and having painstakingly documented our tribal history, the Federal Government, through the U.S. Department of the Interior recognized the Mashpee Wampanoag as one of only two federally recognized Indian tribes in Massachusetts. The effect of the 2007 decision was not that the Tribe was “created” but rather that the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe exists today as a tribe and has existed as such time immemorial.
Despite this recognition, when I was elected Tribal Chairman in 2009, we were a tribe without a reservation and with little hope of fostering economic growth to provide governmental services to our members and expand the quality of life for our people.
Today, many members of our tribe are unable to find housing within our own ancestral territory – one of the most expensive markets in the country. Unemployment is high. We struggle with the many health issues that go along with high rates of poverty – heart disease, asthma, diabetes, cancer, teenage pregnancy, and substance abuse. Many of our tribal members rely on state assistance – through unemployment insurance, transitional assistance, Mass Health, and other programs – just to survive.
The only solution to these challenges is a long term strategy to create economic opportunity, and self-sufficiency for the tribe and to break the cycle of poverty for its people. The ability to develop and operate a resort style casino will not only provide much needed jobs for tribal members, but will also provide the resources necessary for the tribal government to take care of our own people who need assistance through various tribal programs, such as housing, healthcare and jobs-skills training.
In 2009, I ran for election as Chairman of my Tribe as part of a reform slate to rid our tribe of corruption and bring transparency and sound business practices to our tribal government. When the new leadership took office, we examined all of the decisions that the previous administration made, including the proposal to locate a casino in Middleboro. We conducted our appropriate due diligence and ultimately concluded that Fall River would be a better location for the Casino.
Today, the Tribe has reached an agreement with the City of Fall River to develop an integrated resort casino on the outskirts of Fall River. If the legislature approves expanded gaming, we intend to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in the development which includes a casino, three hotels, convention facilities, a spa, high-end shopping and an indoor waterpark. It will be a destination for the whole family.
We have the strong support of the Mayor of Fall River and broad support in the community, as evidenced by a recent poll that concluded that nearly 2/3rds of Fall River residents support the development. The proposed site in Fall River is well-suited to development in that it is easily accessible from major routes, and has good infrastructure surrounding it. Most importantly however, Fall River is an area that is much in need of the economic stimulus that a resort casino can provide.
The Tribe also has the financial backing of Arkana Limited, a wholly-owned affiliate of Malaysian investment group Kien Huat. Kien Huat affiliates financed the startups of Foxwoods Resort and Casino in Connecticut in 1992 and the Seneca Niagara Casino in New York in 2002. They are a multi-billion dollar organization with vast experience developing and operating resort casinos.
The revenues generated by our proposed destination resort casino will provide for housing, education and health care for our people as well as the diversification of our economic development strategy so that we may better provide for our people.
For the city of Fall River, the casino will mean the creation of thousands of construction jobs immediately, and thousands of permanent jobs once the resort is up and operating. The jobs will be blue collar and white collar jobs in diverse industries including hospitality, gaming, food and beverage etc. They are the kinds of jobs that are so desperately needed by the residents of Fall River who are struggling to find work.
While on the subject of jobs, I know that much has been said about the likelihood that destination resort casinos could displace workers at the state’s current racetracks, and at the Raynham/Taunton track in particular. With that possibility in mind, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe is prepared to offer employment to any worker at the Raynham/Taunton facility who loses their job because of changes in the state’s gaming laws.
In addition to employment opportunities, the development will also bring much needed revenue to the City of Fall River, to fund education, infrastructure improvements and crime prevention – all critical issues facing the City. Finally, for the Commonwealth, our proposal will mean economic development for a part of the state that is in desperate need.
Much has been written and said about the subject of Indian land in trust. Let me briefly explain. Currently, the Mashpee Wampanoag is the only federally recognized tribe in Massachusetts that does not have an initial reservation. The Aquinnah Tribe, the other federally recognized tribe, has been granted an initial reservation on Martha’s Vineyard, though they have waived the right to game on that reservation.
Presently, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe has an application before the Bureau of Indian Affairs to take land into trust as an initial reservation. Once the land is placed into trust, our Tribe will have certain gaming rights as provided by the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, or IGRA. According to IGRA, federally recognized tribes “have the exclusive right to regulate gaming activity on Indian lands.”
As I am sure you also know, in February 2009, the Supreme Court decision in Carcieri v. Salazar caused uncertainty as to the federal government’s ability to take land into trust for certain tribes. Since then, we, along with hundreds of other tribes from across the country, have been working with the Obama Administration and Congress to end this uncertainty. We are very encouraged by legislation introduced in both the US Senate and House to resolve this situation and potential opportunities to fix this administratively.
The bottom line is this – once we secure a federal land base, we will inevitably have sovereign rights to game on Indian land. But we would strongly prefer to work with the state now to adopt a comprehensive approach to statewide gaming that includes the Tribe, and allows us to negotiate a contract with the State now, and proceed to put shovels in the ground immediately.
We are very encouraged that both versions of the gaming bill currently pending include specific recognition of the special rights we have because we are a federally recognized tribe, and we were very pleased that the Senate bill included provisions related to our proposal in Fall River.
I am also pleased to have the support of Senator Menard who has been a strong leader not only on this issue, but on all the issues affecting the Tribe and its people. Finally, I want to express how excited we are to be working with Mayor Will Flanagan. Mayor Flanagan is committed to charting a course for economic growth in Fall River that will bring real relief sooner rather than later. He’s in a rush to get his people back to work, and so are we. With the support of our financial backers, we stand ready to put shovels in the ground as soon possible.
We look forward to working with the Commonwealth as it considers expanded gaming and as we move forward with our project. It will be a great project for the Tribe, a great project for Fall River, and a great project for the Commonwealth.
On behalf of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, I thank you for the opportunity to submit this testimony, and look forward to a close working relationship moving forward.