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Mashpee Tribe v. Town of Mashpee

United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts
447 F. Supp. 940 (1978)


The Town of Mashpee (town) (defendant) is a community in Massachusetts. The town was created as an Indian plantation using land designated by the General Court of Plymouth Colony. The land was originally held in common by the Mashpee Tribe (Mashpee) (plaintiff). In 1842, an act was passed to allocate 60-acre lots of the common land to each member of the Mashpee community. However, because the land was part of a grant to the Mashpee, the land could not be freely sold. In 1869, the governor of Massachusetts ended guardianship over all Indians and granted all Indians—including the Mashpee—full citizenship of the United States. Thus, in 1869, the Mashpee community was granted authority to sell Mashpee land. During the next 100 years, the Mashpee retained ownership of most of the land, but some members of the tribe sold land to developers in order to make a profit. Gradually, these small sales reduced the acreage of land owned by the Mashpee and interfered with the Mashpee’s ability to freely access prior hunting and fishing grounds. In other words, the sales of land interfered with the Mashpee’s ability to subsist. In the 1970s, the Mashpee sued the town under the Nonintercourse Act (Act), 25 U.S.C. § 177, which prohibits the conveyance of land from an Indian tribe, unless made by treaty or convention under the United States Constitution. The Mashpee argued that the Mashpee land was sold in violation of the Act. The town disputed whether the Mashpee was actually a “tribe” under the Act. After reviewing the Mashpee’s status on several key historical dates, a jury concluded that the Mashpee was not an Indian tribe under the Act. The Town moved for judgment of dismissal. The Mashpee opposed the motion.

Rule of Law


Holding and Reasoning (Skinner, J.)

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