MASHPEE, Mass. – Nearly four centuries after the Mashpee Wampanoag welcomed the Pilgrims to the New England wilderness, the federal government is close to deciding whether the Indian tribe officially exists.

And that makes some people in this Cape Cod town uneasy.

Considerable power comes with federal recognition, which would make the tribe a sovereign entity within the town. Tribal leaders say recognition is the only way to gain much-needed government health, education and housing benefits and preserve their distinct place in history.

“We are part of the United States now, but we don’t want to be submerged and lost,” said Wampanoag elder Paul Mills.

But skeptics say history has little to do with it. The Wampanoag (pronounced WOMP-a-nawg) have acknowledged an interest in casino gambling and acquiring undeveloped land, a reminder of their failed 1970s land claim that had residents worried the tribe would seize private homes.

“If it was that simple, I’d be all for it,” former Mashpee selectman George Benway Jr. said. “It’s not about that. It’s about money. It’s about power.”

The tribe has been seeking federal recognition since 1975. Last week, the Bureau of Indian Affairs settled a lawsuit with the tribe, promising to make a preliminary decision on their bid by March and a final decision within a year later.

A separate tribe of Wampanoag on Martha’s Vineyard already has federal recognition – the only tribe in the state with the designation.

Tribal council chairman Glenn Marshall said its case for recognition is unassailable, with the tribe meeting each of the seven requirements, including proving it has maintained a political and cultural identity through the centuries. It still elects a chief and medicine man, and much of its power rests with the Elder Council.

Marshall said fears about what the 1,447-member tribe will do with any new power are unfounded. Another bid to seize private land is out of the question, he said, because the first attempt was so painful. The tribe could seek undeveloped tracts of state and federal land, or unclaimed local land, to augment the 180 acres it has left.

“There will always be people who will never believe you, even if you were plugged into a lie detector,” Marshall said.

The town of Mashpee’s name is derived from an aboriginal word meaning “Land of the Great Cove.” The Wampanoag once claimed all its 27 square miles of woodland and freshwater ponds, and those who remain still hunt and fish on its undeveloped areas.

Although the tribe occasionally clashed with the English colonists when they first arrived, they struck a treaty with the settlers the year after the Pilgrims landed in 1620 and hosted the first Thanksgiving.

The Wampanoag adopted the English style of dress and, in 1683, built the Old Indian Meeting House in Mashpee, the oldest Indian church in the country. By the mid-18th century, the English and Wampanoag were jointly running the town, and non-Indians couldn’t buy land without the tribe’s consent.

The land sale restriction was removed by the 1870s, when Mashpee became a town. But its population remained primarily Wampanoag until the 1960s and the tribe was in firm political control of town boards. Since then, Mashpee – about 65 miles southeast of Boston – has become one of the fastest growing communities in the state, pushing the Wampanoag to the political margins.

The land suit the tribe filed in 1976 also opened a rift that hasn’t fully healed.

The suit targeted hundreds of local landowners, claiming that land in Mashpee and three neighboring towns was illegally taken from the tribe. Property owners couldn’t get mortgages or sell their homes because of uncertainty about whether the court would seize their property. A jury ruled against the Wampanoag in 1978 and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

Former selectman Jim Vaccaro said some residents haven’t forgotten that “terrible period.”

“Some people were hurt,” he said. “It was fractured for a number of years. It took some time for the healing to begin.”

Now, Mills feels the tribe’s long battle for recognition is nearly won.

Standing in the Old Indian Meeting House’s cemetery, he points to different headstones and seems to know the story behind each name. Their small community has endured and will overcome any fears people have about taking its rightful place in history, he said.

“The idea that things will eventually work out – I think most people have it,” he said.

On the Net:

Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe:

Town of Mashpee:

Bureau of Indian Affairs:

AP-ES-08-05-05 0226EDT

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