By SEAN GONSALVES
MASHPEE - They've been called everything from the tribe that met the Mayflower to the ''Praying Indians.''
The U.S. government yesterday declared the Mashpee Wampanoag survivors worthy of recognition as a sovereign Indian nation after four centuries of confronting colonization, criticism and assimilation, and then being slowly squeezed off a rapidly developing corner of Cape Cod.
The long-anticipated, though somewhat anti-climactic decision granting the Mashpee tribe a government-to-government relationship with the United States came from Interior Department Associate Deputy Secretary Jim Cason at 5:09 p.m.
''We give glory to God,'' tribe member Ramona Grant said moments after Cason's call. ''Some of us are still
Federal recognition is not only a matter of pride for the tribe but also the key to accessing millions of dollars in federal aid for housing, health care and education funds.
On March 31 last year, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, or BIA, ruled in a 187-page preliminary report that the Mashpee tribe had met all seven of the government's criteria for federal acknowledgment. No challenges to the BIA's findings were submitted since.
Cason's voice, which delivered the verdict a month earlier than initially expected, could be heard on speaker phone as tribal council officers, tribe members and a crush of news cameras and photographers focused intently and silently on Tribal Council Chairman Glenn Marshall seated next to Chief Vernon ''Silent Drum'' Lopez.
''Based on the evidence available, I have determined the Mashpee exist as an Indian tribe,'' Cason said, as the room erupted in shouts of joy.
Though the atmosphere inside the tribal council office was calm and upbeat before Cason called - in contrast to the nervous excitement of last year's preliminary decision - still tears of joy and sighs of relief came with the official word.
With tears streaming down his face, Marshall told Cason of his appreciation for the BIA staff who reviewed the tribe's petition. And though he said, ''We haven't always seen eye-to-eye,'' Marshall invited BIA staff to the tribe's July powwow.
As Marshall took congratulatory phone calls from Gov. Deval Patrick, followed by Sen. Edward Kennedy and then U.S. Rep. William Delahunt, ecstatic tribe members chanted softly and hugged each as tribal drumming could be heard coming from the heated outdoor tent set up on the grounds outside the tribal council offices.
''Once we got the preliminary recognition, we were pretty sure. We knew we had a good petition,'' Chief Lopez said in between hugs and handshakes.
Former BIA researcher Christine Grabowski, who was hired by the tribe to help strengthen its petition, said yesterday's decision was long overdue.
''The history is good; you don't need thousands of pages to know the obvious. They have the documentation, of course, but it should not have taken this long or cost this much,'' Grabowski said.
The tribe's sovereign-nation status will become permanent 90 days after the decision is published in the Federal Register. Once that happens the Mashpee Wampanoag will be the 564th federally recognized tribe in the country, the second tribe to be granted sovereign-nation status in the state, and the first to be recognized under the Bush administration.
BIA officials said last year the Mashpee petition was one of the strongest the agency had ever seen - a petition that could not be undermined even by financial disputes among contemporary tribe members.
While yesterday's decision may have been anti-climactic for some, that's not to say there weren't worried tribe members, wounded by broken promises of the past.
''I didn't sleep last night,'' Marshall said, between exchanging greetings with other members and sharing stories with the assembled media in the moments before Cason's call.
Twenty minutes later, tribal council officers made their way to the stage set up in the tent outside, packed to capacity with hundreds of cheering tribe members and supporters.
''Mashpee will shine tonight. Today is a day for every tribe member,'' Marshall said with a strained voice, explaining there were too many people to thank for him to remember every name.
''Although we are newly recognized, we've always been a tribe,'' he said, before asking for a moment of silence for those who didn't live to see the historic day.
''We are here to start the next chapter - the chapter that says we will be financially set, and if it takes a casino, we're there,'' Marshall said.
Next, Chief Lopez stepped to the microphone.
''I'm proud to be here today to see our efforts come to fruition. We persevered and here we are today,'' he said.
The tribe's next move will be to apply for tribal lands to be taken into trust by the federal government.
The tribe owns about 170 acres in Mashpee and has been eyeing property off-Cape for a tribal office to meet the needs of tribe members who live elsewhere in the state, and possibly to build a resort casino.
Though the tribe's central service area is the south Mashpee region - home to about half the tribe - the Wampanoag's ancestral lands encompass a 50-mile radius that includes the entire Cape, extending as far north as Quincy and as far west as Rhode Island.
The first land priority, tribal leaders have said, is to build housing for tribe members who have not been able to afford to stay in their ancestral homeland.
Before land can be taken into trust, however, tribal officials have to submit an application to the Interior Department that includes specific plans on how the tribe proposes to use the land. That process allows for state and local officials to comment.
If the tribe's land trust application is approved, the federal government holds the approved properties in trust on behalf of the tribe, removing those parcels from the tax rolls.
Also, tribal council spokesman Scott Ferson said, tribal leaders, with the financial backing of Detroit casino developer Herb Strather, will pursue plans to build a resort casino in Southeastern Massachusetts similar to the Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun casinos in Connecticut.
Tribal leaders are being invited to meet with New Bedford city councilors to talk about gaming prospects. Marshall met with Gov. Deval Patrick's staff on Monday to discuss the issue as the governor and lawmakers wrestle with whether to legalize casino development in the commonwealth.
If state lawmakers roll the dice on high-stakes gambling, under the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act the Mashpee Wampanoag, as well as its sister tribe on Martha's Vineyard, would have the right to build a casino.
But even if casino legislation passes, the state would have to negotiate a ''gaming compact'' with the Mashpee tribe and/or the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), which has sought unsuccessfully to open a casino.
As for the tribe itself, Ferson said, there won't be any noticeable changes in tribal governance.
Mashpee Selectman John Cahalane, who serves on the town's subcommittee on tribal affairs and was on hand for yesterday's announcement, said he looks forward to a mutually beneficial relationship between the town and tribe.
''I think in the long run this will benefit the tribe and the town,'' Cahalane said.
Sean Gonsalves can be reached at email@example.com.
(Published: February 16, 2007)