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For the Wampanoag, Wait for Recognition Is Over

ED GORDON, host:

The Wampanoag Indians greeted the Pilgrims when they landed at Plymouth Rock, and now the Bureau of Indian Affairs has granted them official recognition as a tribe. Commentator Robin Washington explains that they have, in part, a black man and his multi-million dollar PR campaign, to thank for that.

Mr. ROBIN WASHINGTON (Editor, The Duluth News Tribune): The United States government finally got around to recognizing my friend Paula as an American Indian a couple weeks ago. For that, she has a black man to thank. Actually, she has her ancestors and her parents, particularly her father, to thank even more.

Russell Peters, or Fast Turtle, led the Mashpee Wampanoags of Massachusetts for years. He fought for federal recognition for the tribe until his death in 2002. But the history goes back way further than that.

If the Wampanoags sound familiar, they were the Native Americans who met the Pilgrims off the boat in 1620. They had a much nicer immigration policy then we do now. They fed the starving Europeans, and even taught them how to grow corn. And remember the first Thanksgiving? It wasn't exactly as the myth has it today. They didn't sit together, because the English thought the Indians had no souls, and the Wampanoags didn't want to catch whatever diseases were wiping out the Pilgrims.

But who do you think brought the venison to the party? And all that stuff about turkeys? That came later.

If the Pilgrims thought the Wampanoags were decent enough hosts, their descendants had a weird way of showing it. By the late 1800s, many Wampanoags lived in the unincorporated town of Mashpee, and the neighboring white folks suggested, come on, be like everyone else and incorporate the town. They did, and it wasn't long before whites began buying up what had been tribal land. Real estate values skyrocketed.

And in the 1975, the Wampanoags sued to reclaim the land. They lost when a judge ruled they weren't the tribe. Hadn't he ever heard of Thanksgiving?

Fast Turtle then started the effort to get federal recognition from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. But as Paula Peters remembers, nobody in Washington cared much about which tribes were recognized until 1988, when Congress passed the Indian gaming act. Suddenly, being a tribe had value to investors. Can you spell casino? And can you spell Jack Abramoff?

It took a while, but in 1999, the Mashpee Wampanoags attracted an investor. It was Herb Strather, an African-American casino and real estate tycoon from Detroit. Quietly, so quiet, in fact, that Paula says she'd never heard of him until two weeks ago, Strather put up $15 million dollars. That was to pay for legal fees, ethno-historical research, and other expenses to convince the feds that the Wampanoags were who they always said they were.

On March 31st, the BIA announced preliminary approval of their recognition bid. Okay, Strather didn't do it for nothing, and obviously, his goal was to make a killing with a casino. But that's not a sure bet. Massachusetts doesn't allow Indian casinos yet, and federal recognition still isn't final. But even if I'm being naïve, I'll take his word that he did do it as a philanthropist, and as one person of color helping out others.

There's a long link between the Wampanoags and black people. One tribal member more than 200 years ago was Crispus Attucks, the first African-American and Native American, and just plain American, to die in the revolutionary war.

Don't believe me? Ask my friend Paula. And the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

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GORDON: Robin Washington is editorial page editor of the Duluth News Tribune in Duluth, Minnesota. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Robin Washington