Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Chairman Brian Weeden says he is a different kind of leader than the Massachusetts tribe has known in the past. For one thing, he’s very young—at 28, the youngest tribal member ever elected to the post. But his youth may be one of the reasons he was elected.
“When I was running for chairman, I told people it was our last chance and opportunity to get things right,” Weeden told GGB News. “After two former administrations where the chairpeople were charged or alleged misappropriation and embezzlement, our tribe really needs to rebuild. We have a lot of trust issues.
“For many, it’s a sense of relief to have someone who’s lived here all his life and been raised here.”
Weeden was born in Falmouth and raised in Mashpee. Both his parents are members of the tribe. “I’m connected and related to everyone,” he says.
Weeden has led the Cape Cod-based tribe of about 2,600 enrolled members since his election in May 2021. The Mashpees, who call themselves the People of the First Light, are acknowledged by historians to have there to greet the Pilgrims when they landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620. Yet the tribe didn’t achieve federal recognition until 2007.
Almost immediately, they embarked on the path of putting land into trust with the goal of building and operating a casino. When the state legislature passed the Expanded Gaming Act of 2011, then-Governor Deval Patrick made it clear the tribe would operate one of three resort casinos to be authorized in the Bay State.
Things moved smoothly at first. The tribe partnered with the powerful Genting Group, and the Obama administration put 170 acres in Taunton and 150 acres in the town of Mashpee on Martha’s Vineyard into federal trust for a reservation. The tribe moved forward with plans for the $1 billion First Light Casino.
Then a federal judge, acting on a lawsuit filed by Taunton residents opposed to a casino, ruled against the tribe. The Interior Department under Donald Trump tried to reverse the earlier decision to put land into trust. Then a federal judge ruled against the department. It seemed the bottom had fallen out of the project.
Then several weeks ago, the Biden Interior Department opted not to appeal the final ruling, thus restoring the tribe’s disputed trust status. But at the same time, the tribe was nearly broke, with its funding from the Genting Group interrupted and only grant money to live on.
In a final blow, longtime tribal Chairman Cedric Cromwell was charged with bribery, extortion and filing false tax returns. He was the second chairman to run afoul of federal corruption laws.
Into that challenging environment stepped the young leader, Brian Weeden.
Building a Platform
Weeden described his journey leading to the chairmanship: “I started the Youth Advisory Committee in 2009 to give youth a voice. I got involved with the community and served on the Mashpee Unity Council.”
He became co-president and trustee of United National Indian Tribal Youth Inc. (UNITY) and the National Congress of American Indians, and co-vice president of the National Council of American Indians Youth Commission. He also serves on the tribe’s Pow Wow Committee, Land Use and Planning Committee, Enrollment Committee and Youth Advisory Committee.
He noted, “You can’t run for office for a general seat until you’re 25, but you can vote when you’re 18.” He was elected chairman at age 26 with 75 percent of the vote among six seats.
Weeden attributes this support to his work with youth development and UNITY, “the oldest Native American youth organization.” In 2016 he was awarded the National Congress of American Indians Ernie Stevens Jr. Youth Leadership Award.
His learning curve for chairman hasn’t been as tough as one might suppose. “I think a lot of the national work that I did helped prepare me,” he said. “I also served on various boards in the town and at the state level. I’ve worked for other tribes as well. The hardest part is dealing with the personalities, not so much the transactional work.”
To ‘Right a Wrong’
Asked how the tribe was affected by the Interior Department’s attempt to disestablish its reservation, Weeden was dismissive: “That’s the Trump administration. Luckily we don’t have to deal with that at the moment. The tribe has always known this land belonged to us. We’ve known that from time immemorial, whether it was the town or the federal government that ‘owns’ it.
“The tribe has an opportunity to right a wrong,” he said. “We’re connected to the land. In our language, we and the land are the same.”
That said, he concedes the tribe has been “traumatized.”
It is “historical trauma,” he said. “All those things that happened to us are real. This nation celebrated 400 years since the English landed here, and this was the contact tribe. Assimilation happened to us. We were the guinea pigs on what happened in the rest of the continent, and a lot of that stuff is still around. We have high suicide rates and high unemployment. Hopefully we can address this now that our land is in trust and bring the people back home to our community.”
What about the future of the casino? “Right now, the tribe is considering all options, whether Class II or Class III,” he said. “They are the low-bearing fruit for our tribes. It’s been easy for other tribes, but not for us. We need to take a more strategic approach as we move forward.”
As the tribe reviews its options, its relationship with the Malaysian-based Genting Group “is still alive and well and we have extended our relationship for another year.”
Looking ahead 10 years, Weeden is optimistic, and foresees “a more financially stable” community.
As for the Mashpees’ relationship with the city Taunton, “it’s still good,” he added. “There’s a few that obviously want to oppose the tribe in any way they can. But as far as I know from the city and mayor, they are very much supportive of the tribe.
“I’m not really worried about opposition. They’ve been fighting us for the last couple of years, but we’ve been fighting for 400 years. When you consider that, this is just a drop in the bucket. The difference is that we’re now able to exercise our sovereignty.”