In the piny scrub by a roadside lies a vandalized billboard advertising "Commercial and Industrial Zone Land for Sale or Lease. Exclusive with Kopp Realty." Scarcely a hundred yards away a signpost greets the visitor: "Mashpee, Land of the Wampanoag. Incorporated 1870."
Together they symbolize the drama that is taking place in this small Cape Cod town. One year ago this week, the Mashpee Wampanoag Indian Tribal Council filed suit to regain lands taken from the natives in 1870 without congressional approval. The Indians claimed 13,780 of the town's 16,000 acres. Somewhere between 8,000 and 11,000 acres, still are undeveloped. If the Indians prevail, the land will remain that way.
Five years prior to the suit, Mashpee grew faster than any other town in Massachusetts, save one. It's population doubled between 1970 and 1976 to about 4,000. The number of housing units rose 62.3 per cent.
Most of the growth of Mashpee, located between Falmouth and Hyannis, can be attributed to New Seabury, a 2,800-acre luxury resort and secondhome development on Nantucket Sound. As a result, the white, affluent population has increased quickly and now vastly outnumbers the Indians and blacks, who are generally at the lower end of the economic scale. Yet inland from the seashore, the visitor sees constant reminders of Mashpee's Indian tradition; from names like Attaquin and Chief Wildhorse on tombstones to the Wigwam Motel.
In the year since the Indians claimed title to much of Mashpee:
No mortgages have been granted by banks for residential or commercial buildings because no adequate title insurance is available.
Transactions involving land and [TEXT OMMITTED FROM SOURCE] and George A. Benway Jr., president of Benway Realty, the successor to Koops Realty, whose billboard lies in the scrub. His Mashpee realty earnings down 90 per cent from last year, Benway supports his family on outside realty interests plus the $12,000 he gets as full-time selectman (his part-time status was upgraded as a result of the suit).
Hard-line, determined to fight it out in court, this group recently received some good news and some bad news. A month ago, a U.S. district judge in Boston turned down a Town of Mashpee countersuit that would have made the federal government liable for $300 million in damages should the Indians win in the trial scheduled to start Oct. 17. The suit charged the government had been negligent in not approving land transfer as required by the Indian Non-Intercourse Act of 1790.
The good news was a modification of the original Indian suit, which included all property owners as class action defendants in addition to the 146 big landholders named as defendants. Last week, the Indians agreed to exempt from the claim all land having homes or businesses.
In Benway's opinion, this move should open the mortgage market again soon, unless bank's attorneys feel congressional approval is required. However, it leaves as a negotiable issue the ownership - indeed the definition - of undeveloped land, much of which is owned by family trusts and developers. "If this is (the Indians') final offer, it is not acceptable," Benway said.
The Town of Mashpee, which somewhere between 700 and 1,000 acres, has hired attorney James St. Clair of Watergate fame.Thus far, legal fees have run about $100,000, which has been raised through increased taxes. (One irony in this situation is that Indians who own property are taxed to defend the case in which their tribe is the plaintiff.)
And, although St. Claire represents the town, not individual property owners, Benway is confident the townspeople will endure further increases to take the case to the Supreme Court, if necessary. He estimates this would cost $500,000, or 21 per cent of the town's current tax revenues. Thus far, no financial help has come from area banks, which hold mortgages on half the property in Mashpee, nor from state or federal governments.
Legal fees have been comparable for the Indians, who are financed by the Native American Rights Fund, which receives its backing in turn from the Ford Foundation and other such institutions. The Wampanoag chief is Russell M. Peters, a former computer specialist who began to devote full time to the Indian cause three years ago. Research for the suit began about two years ago. In the spring of 1976, Peters became a consultant to, and was subsequently hired in February 1977 as director of, the Native American Television Project. This film series on the lifestyle of Indians in Southern New England is financed by $250,000 federal grant. His salary is about $20,000 a year.
Peters said his people had not really been affected economically by the suit. Although numbers of Indians work in the building trades, they were not employed by New Seabury, the biggest developer. Many work outside the town, especially at nearby Otis Air Force Base.
Contrary to popular belief, some Indians, including the Peters family, appear to be quite well off by Mashpee standards. Russell's sister, Amelia Peters Bingham, and her husband, who is a police chief, own 23 acres, assessed at $86,000. Brother John Peters owns about 15 parcels of land, according to town records.
In its suit, the council is asking the United States to acquire at fair market value 2,000 acres for unlimited use by the Mashpee tribe, 1,000 acres for agricultural use by the tribe, and 5,000 to 7,000 acres for perpetual wilderness, plus access to the seashore for shell fishermen. Tax revenue loses on this land are estimated at $200 million annually.
The lack of a master plan - or even a map - of the 2,000 acres has fueled wild rumors that the Indians plan to develop the land themselves, invite other tribes to settle there in lots next to rich retirees, or even set up "trading posts" selling cheap liquor and wares to tourists.
Though Peters denied these tales, he volunteered no additional information about land use except to say the Indians did not intend to "checkerboard" (claim vacant land in largely developed areas like New Seabury). But he strongly denied the Wampanoags would accept cash settlement in lieu of land.
(This spring, President Carter appointed retired Georgia Supreme Court Justice William Gunter to mediate in both the Maine and Mashpee Indian land claim cases. Gunter's proposal last July 15 that the Penobscots and Passamaquoddies, who claim 12.5 million acres, be granted $25 million and 100,000 acres, was spurned by the Maine tribes. He is expected to make his recommendation on Mashpee within the next fortnight.)
Modification of the Indian claims to exclude residential holdings, the approaching trial and mounting costs have stimulated settlement efforts by a third group. A week ago Saturday, about 300 townspeople - whites, blacks, Indians, summer and yearround residents - assembled to complain that the selectmen did not represent their position. Many questioned the wisdom of a long, costly court battle.