Final arguments were heard in a packed U.S. District Courtroom here today on the Machpee Wampanoag Indian land claims suit, which contends the Indians own the town of Mashpee's 16,000 acres of prime Cape Cod land.
The arguments, summing up more than 5,000 pages of testimony taken over a 3 1/2-month period, focused on whether the Wampanog Indians living in the town of Mashpee constitute a tribe, illegally deprived of property in the small island town.
The Indians allege the land was illegally transferred and sold in violation of a 1790 federal statute, and they claim a 1685 deed to the land that was confirmed by the Pilgrims of the New Plymouth Colony proves tribal ownership.
However, the defendants, represented by the town's Board of Selectmen, landowners and developers, clain the Indian residents of Mashpee are merely individual citizens with no distinct tribal status.
Several Indian residents of Mashpee, many wearing braids and colorful Indian clothing and jewelry in an apparent effort to dramatize their heritage and tribal status before the jury, were sprinkled throughout the crowd of nearly 200 persons crammed onto the courtroom's wooden benches.
The jurors, who have listened to 35 witnesses for the plaintiffs and 17 for the defendants during the 37-day trial, will be given the case Wednesday following instructions from Judge Walter J. Skinner.
Defense attorney James St. Clair and the Indians' attorney, Lawrence Shubow, introduced more than 1,000 exhibits, 670 for the defense and the remainder for the plaintiffs.
Both sides rested their cases last Friday. The jury, which has not been sequestered during the lengthy proceedings, will be once deliberations begin.
St. Clair told the jury today that the Wampanoag Indians of Mashpee have not "fulfilled the legal definition of a tribe" and that no "tribal cultural boundaries" exist differentiating the Indians from other residents of the town.
St. Clair claimed the Wampanoags have no unique dances or songs and that their chiefs are merely figure heads.
Following a historical review of the Mashpee Wampanoags from the 1600s, St. Clair concluded the Indians have been assimilated into the overall culture of the town and therefore have no district claim to its property.
Shubow, however, argued that the Wampanoags in Mashpee are unique because "they are still living on the same land, practicing the same traditions."
"The Wampanoags are a cultural phenomenon preserved by a common land base, a network of interconnecting families and a strong consciousness of Indian heritage transmited from generation to generation through a resilient leadership," he said.
"Don't deny these people their identity," Shubow told the jury. "They've been fighting for their identities for 350 years. The Indians have done nothing to deserve anything but justice free of prejudice and external plessures from this jury."