(Reuters) – The U.S. government on Thursday officially recognised the American Indians whose ancestors met the British Pilgrim settlers at Plymouth Rock in 1620 and fought in a bloody conflict over the first U.S. colonies.
The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe of Massachusetts, whose ancestors held the first Thanksgiving meal with the European settlers, are now eligible for federal assistance in housing and healthcare, the U.S. Interior Department said.
Under their new status, the Cape Cod tribe can also hunt and fish without a state licence and apply to build a casino, potentially fuelling efforts to lift a state ban on casinos.
The tribe’s ancestors fought in the bloodiest conflict of 17th century New England, a one-year battle between Indians and English settlers that killed an estimated 600 settlers and 3,000 Indians. The King Philip’s War broke down Indian resistance and led to the eventual westward push by Europeans.
Asked why it took so long for recognition, tribe spokesman Scott Ferson said the process is a bureaucratic procedure that “does not necessarily favour the Eastern tribes,” which are smaller than the Western tribes.
About 65 miles (104 km) southeast of Boston in Mashpee, a town where most of the tribe lives, tribal elders tended to “spirit fires” to honour tribe members who have died since the push for recognition began 32 years ago, as others celebrated.
Ferson said the tribe submitted 64 boxes of documentation to the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, including detailed genealogies on each of the tribe’s 1,461 living members dating to the first encounter with the Europeans.
The tribe’s chairman, Glenn Marshall, can trace his heritage back to Massasoit, the Wampanoag chief who shared the first Thanksgiving meal with European settlers in 1621.
There are currently 561 recognised Native American tribes in the United States and nearly 200 petitions for recognition, said Nedra Darling, a Bureau of Indian Affairs spokeswoman.