The ‘Thanksgiving Tribe’ Is Still Fighting for Food Sovereignty


On a Friday afternoon in late March, Cedric Cromwell, Chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe in Massachusetts, obtained a name, from Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) director Darryl LaCounte. Cromwell assumed LaCounte was calling to see how the company may help the Mashpee Wampanoag Nation in the course of the coronavirus pandemic, which was already disproportionally affecting Indigenous peoples throughout the U.S.

Instead, Cromwell discovered that, based mostly on an order from Department of Interior, the federal authorities was de-establishing the Mashpee Wampanoag’s reservation, efficient instantly. De-establishment would imply the tribe may proceed to carry onto their land, however they must pay steep again taxes on it. They would not have the ability to function as a sovereign nation, and would immediately be unable to function their very own police or judicial system.

The land in query is their ancestral residence, the place the Mashpee Wampanoag greeted the Pilgrims in 1620, and from the place the Mashpee helped the colonizers farm, taught them about native vegetation and aquatic life, and even held the primary Thanksgiving with them. Their 321-acre reservation is much smaller than the tribe’s unique nation, which stretched from japanese Rhode Island into Massachusetts, and has been inhabited by the Mashpee Wampanoag for 12,000 years.

Describing the revocation as a “terroristic attack from this administration against my tribe,” Cromwell likened it to how colonizers used smallpox to exterminate Indigenous peoples 400 years in the past, after the Mashpee Wampanoag welcomed the Pilgrims to their shores.

“They killed us off and took our land. . . . Talk about re-opening wounds and repeating history,” mentioned Cromwell, referencing how Pilgrims distributed diseased blankets to the tribe, after the Wampanoag taught the Pilgrims to fish and hunt for cod, sea bass, turkey, rabbit, and lobster. “When you think of our homelands being taken away, that would take away our ability to farm our land as a sovereign nation,” he added.

“They killed us off and took our land. Talk about re-opening wounds and repeating history.”

An East Coast tribe, the Mashpee retain their indigenous fishing and searching rights, counting on wild meals like striped bass or deer for sustenance. They additionally depend on gathering herbs, greens and fruits, like elderberry, blueberries, seaside plum, wild garlic, milkweeds or fiddlehead ferns, lots of which develop wild on their reservation.

In response to the U.S. authorities’s transfer, the Mashpee filed an emergency restraining order towards the Department of Interior to cease its actions, and tribes throughout the nation have been watching the case carefully: The BIA transfer was the primary time because the finish of the Termination Era within the late 1960s that the U.S. authorities tried to de-establish a reservation, and observers feared that it foreshadowed how the Trump administration intends to strategy tribal relations.

On June 5, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia reversed the Interior Department’s transfer, successfully saying that the Department of Interior didn’t comply with its personal pointers.

“I believe this president really thought he could get away with it,” mentioned Cromwell. “There is no legal precedent for how he can do this.”

Despite the authorized win, which permits the Wampanoag to proceed growing their meals sovereignty plans, the tribe nonetheless must federally set up their reservation, which is critical to safe their long-term sovereignty.

Fighting for Access to Traditional Foods

Although the Mashpee are a smaller tribe, the truth that they’ve remained on their historic lands is critical within the U.S., the place many tribes have been forcibly eliminated, and provides them entry to a few of their conventional searching and fishing grounds and the cultural traditions centered round meals.

An overhead view of the Mashpee Wampanoag’s conventional territory on Cape Cod. (Photo courtesy of the Mashpee Wampanoag)

As the tribe’s land has been systematically taken away, they face meals insecurity and are turning to greenhouses to attempt and make sure the capability to boost year-round crops within the chilly Northeast local weather, mentioned Cromwell. In addition to their agricultural enterprises, they’ve an operational oyster farm, in addition to leisure shellfishing, crabbing and fishing of their conventional waters. As just lately as 2015, they’ve fought domestically to guard elements of their waterways from growth.

“[My parents] taught us how to survive by the season—food sovereignty is everything for us,” mentioned Sherry Pocknett, a Mashpee Wampanoag tribal member and chef who’s within the technique of opening Sly Fox Den, an indigenous meals restaurant, in Connecticut. “It is just really hard for East Coast Indians to keep their lifeways going because . . . no one wants you on their property or to cut through to get to the source [for shellfishing].”

The Mashpee tribe constructed a 3,500-square-foot greenhouse on their land in an effort to supply extra meals for elders, in addition to promote agriculture of their neighborhood. They elevate squash, potatoes, and corn—greens which can be a part of a typical Thanksgiving, mentioned Cromwell. Additionally, the tribe’s well being providers use the greenhouse to develop pure natural treatments, whereas the bigger farm can be as an academic software for the tribe’s native language venture.

“Diabetes is very high amongst our people, because of the industrialized food that our bodies weren’t really accustomed to eating,” mentioned Cromwell. Pointing out that reservation standing would assist assist the tribe’s farm initiative, he confused the significance of “getting back more to the traditional foods—beans, squash, and corn—that help heal the body.”

Food Sovereignty and Legal Status

Since the Mayflower arrived from England in November 1620, Indigenous peoples’ capability to maintain their cultural and meals traditions has been irrevocably linked to their capability to entry land, which is why this current resolution to additional divorce the Mashpee from their conventional holdings has many up in arms.

“Our Indigenous ancestors had the luxury of the knowledge of generations handed down to them, we’ve lost a lot of that. People don’t even know their own environment anymore,” mentioned Sean Sherman, a chef and the creator of North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems (NATIFS) a Minnesota-based nonprofit that works to advertise Indigenous foodways. At his Minneapolis enterprise, The Sioux Chef, he mentioned that many patrons are stunned by the cedar tea they serve, and the truth that the frequent tree is definitely a flavorful meals supply.

Recent historical past within the United States reveals that it’s “extremely important” for Indigenous peoples to have entry to their ancestral land, he added. “Because of the loss of land, and because of the loss of connection and access to our own foods, we see a lot of loss of culture . . . especially to the East,” Sherman mentioned.

The Shinnecock tribe in New York additionally has entry to, and is preventing to retain, searching and fishing rights on their conventional lands. And they’re going through a meals sovereignty problem much like the Mashpee Wampanoag. Traditionally a hunter-gatherer tribe with a powerful connection to the water, the Shinnecock’s native waterways have been more and more circumscribed by native and state authorities, in addition to non-Indigenous fishermen.

Similar to their sister tribe, the Mashpee Wampanoag, the Shinnecock are additionally now turning to a greenhouse and neighborhood backyard, in an effort to bolster their meals sovereignty, as a few of their conventional gathering strategies, and the place they can hunt, have been affected by fashionable growth.


Describing the Shinnecock as a “wealthy tribe” as a result of they’ll nonetheless entry conventional meals akin to seaside plums, clams, and deer, tribal member Jason Colfield mentioned, “that one word—sovereignty—holds a lot of power within Indian Country. We don’t take it for granted. And we are constantly fighting for it.”

In 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a call in Carcieri v. Salazar that upended the standing of each tribe not federally acknowledged within the landmark 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, which aimed to “conserve and develop Indian lands and resources” and strengthen tribes’ sovereignty and cultures.

“That one word—sovereignty—holds a lot of power within Indian Country. We don’t take it for granted. And we are constantly fighting for it.”

This resolution created authorized confusion for dozens of tribes, together with the Mashpee Wampanaog, who in 2007 have been federally acknowledged, however in 1934 have been left off the U.S. authorities’s listing of “recognized” tribes. The 2009 resolution made it unattainable for the federal government to take the Mashpee Wampanoag land into belief, the authorized course of for making a reservation, in addition to the land of dozens of different tribes throughout the U.S.

“[The Carcieri] decision threw into limbo the status quo that all tribes should be treated the same under federal law, including that land could be taken into trust,” mentioned Derrick Beetso, basic counsel of the National Congress of American Indians.

Despite authorized contracts that predated the formation of the U.S., the Mashpee tribe amongst these tribes neglected of the 1934 Act, and it was the primary to attempt to set up a brand new reservation after 2009. That’s why the Mashpee case is necessary: Other tribes who have been equally left off the 1934 federal listing are hoping to comply with the Mashpee strategy and set up their very own sovereign nations.

In addition to the threatened lack of sovereignty for the Mashpee Wampanoag individuals, many fear about what sort of authorized precedent the proposed de-establishment will set. Indigenous regulation within the U.S. has gone by way of many phases, and whereas some really feel that tribal sovereignty has moved in a constructive course in current many years, the Trump Administration’s sudden transfer appears to be a worst-case consequence of the 2009 Carcieri v. Salazar resolution.

While the tribe was in a position to block the Department of Interior’s resolution to de-establish their reservation, they’re nonetheless not federally established and Mashpee Chairman Cromwell underlined the significance of getting H.R. 312, which might re-affirm their standing, or H.R. 375 which might amend the controversial Indian Reorganization Act, handed in Senate.

Either invoice would enable the Mashpee to federally set up their reservation, giving them extra capability to make long-term plans for tribal meals sovereignty, and it will additionally set authorized precedent for different tribes, together with the Shinnecock, to comply with go well with.

“The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe . . . greeted the pilgrims and shared their harvest in this thing called Thanksgiving. We are American history,” mentioned Cromwell. “The U.S. is almost saying, ‘Well, we got what we wanted, [now] we are going to completely erase you.’”