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Mass. tribes seek separate voice

Associated Press | 3/16/2010, 5:41 a.m.

A group of Wampanoag tribes who say they’ve been cast aside on issues from the Nantucket Sound wind farm to the future of gaming are breaking away to create a new council to deal with state government.

The state-recognized tribes are calling on Gov. Deval Patrick to disband the Massachusetts Commission on Indian Affairs, the current liaison to state tribes.

George Spring Buffalo, chairman of the Pocasset Wampanoag, said the commission speaks only for the two federally recognized Wampanoag tribes, the Mashpee and Gay Head on Martha’s Vineyard, while ignoring the other four tribes.

“They don't represent us,” Spring Buffalo said. “We represent ourselves now.”

Massachusetts Commission on Indian Affairs executive director Jim Peters, a member of the Mashpee, said Friday there’s no favoritism for federal tribes at the agency.

“All the Indian people are important here in the state and we try to provide whatever services we can to help them help their people and progress in current day society,” he said.

The new board would be called the Affiliated Tribes of New England Indians of the United States, according to a draft resolution adopted March 7 at a Wampanoag conference in Fall River, but not yet presented to the governor. The meeting did not include the leadership of the Mashpee or Gay Head tribes, though Spring Buffalo said they would be welcome to join the new board.

The tribes that aren’t federally recognized -- Pocasset, Chappaquidic, Seekonk and Herring Pond -- count about 150 to 200 members each. The Mashpee tribe, has more than 2,000 members, according to Peters, while the Gay Head tribe has about 1,300.

Federal recognition is won after lengthy review in which tribes prove they’ve maintained a political and cultural identity throughout their history. It comes with increased access to federal funds and opens the door for tribal-run casino gambling, if that’s legal in their state.

Spring Buffalo, whose tribe descends from the legendary chief Massasoit, says the federal designation is irrelevant to Wampanoag governance because the nation has unity and legitimacy apart from the federal government and is supposed to govern as one. But he said that’s not happening, even on huge issues like casino gambling and the wind farm.

Bettina Washington of the Gay Head Wampanoag said a key issue is whether the individual tribes recognize each other’s legitimacy “tribe to tribe,” and added that’s a discussion that should be taking place privately. “It shouldn’t be taken to the newspapers,” she said. “This is our business.”

Asked if the Gay Head tribe officially recognizes the other tribes, Washington said, “Do they recognize us, if we weren’t even at the (March 7) meeting?”

Spring Buffalo said some recent events fueled the decision to form a new group.

Earlier this year, the Pocassets were angered by a commission proposal to put 100 acres of the Watuppa Reservation in Fall River into state trust. The Pocassets say it’s their territory and view the move as a land grab by the Mashpee tribe as they look to build a casino. But Peters says other Wampanoag families have as much connection to the reservation land as Pocassets.