A recent decision by the federal government to take some 300 acres of Mashpee Wampanoag land out of federal trust does not affect the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), but it speaks volumes about the political climate currently facing native peoples across the country, tribal chairwoman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais said this week.

“Our tribal lands are not in peril of having its trust status changed,” Ms. Andrews-Maltais said in a text message to the Gazette Tuesday. “However, it’s an indication of the climate that we, as all tribes face, with regard to getting any additional land into trust.”

Last week the Secretary of the Interior announced that approximately 150 acres of reservation land in Mashpee and 170 acres in Taunton would be taken out of federal trust. The decision followed a February ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals that the federal government did not have the authority to take the land into trust in 2015. The ruling upholds an earlier lower court decision.

The Mashpees have been planning to build a $1 billion casino on their Taunton property, but the federal trust designation was required in order for the project to go forward.

By contrast, some 400 acres of Gay Head tribal lands that were taken into federal trust in the 1980s as part of a land claims settlement, are permanently protected under a governmental pact.

Ms. Andrews-Maltais explained the legal particulars that permanently protect the Gay Head tribal lands.

“Congress specifically instructed the Secretary of the Interior to take lands into trust on our behalf, as part of the federal law known as the Massachusetts Indian Land Claims Settlement Act,” she wrote. “Since this was an expressed intent of Congress, authorizing, and more importantly, directing the Secretary of the Interior to take land into trust for our tribe; our trust lands are outside the impacts of this decision and action.”

In 1987 the Vineyard Wampanoags were the first Native American tribe in Massachusetts to win federal recognition.

The Masphees won federal recognition in 2007. In 2012, a year after casino gambling became legal in Massachusetts, former Gov. Deval Patrick awarded the Mashpee tribe the sole state license reserved for a recognized Native American tribe. But the tribe has struggled to get its project off the ground.

The Vineyard Wampanoag tribe has been pursuing its own plans to build a bingo hall gaming facility on tribal land in Aquinnah, but that project is stalled as the tribe and town remain mired in court over the issue of building permits. The long-running legal dispute is now before the U.S. Court of Appeals First Circuit.

The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe is a separate entity from the Aquinnah Wampanoags, with approximately 2,600 tribal members who live on Cape Cod, primarily in Mashpee. The Aquinnah tribe has approximately 1,200 members, about 300 of them living on Martha’s Vineyard.

But there is cultural crossover between the two tribes, whose members attend events on both sides of the Sound, including annual powwows. A native language reclamation project, which includes instruction in Wôpanâak for school children, has also involved members of both tribes.

Ms. Andrews-Maltais excoriated the recent action by the federal government against her sister tribe, calling it “unnecessary and hostile.” She said the Secretary of the Interior should be supporting tribes, rather than removing their lands from trust, during the pandemic.

She said recent events harked back to the “termination era” between the 1940s and 1960s, when the federal government removed aid, services, protections and reservation lands from tribes in an effort to promote assimilation.

“The Department of the Interior, as our cognizant agency, is supposed to be working on behalf of tribes (Indian Country), and should be doing their absolute level best to add to tribal homelands, not working at taking lands away,” the tribal chairwoman said.