In the view of Aquinnah police chief Doug Fortes, the turning point came in the fall of 1999, when rangers from the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) came back from a trip to the Oneida Indian Nation in upstate New York, packing a half dozen Glock nine-millimeter semi-automatic pistols.
"The minute I heard that, I knew the candle was lit," said Chief Fortes.
By last July, Wampanoag rangers and tribal leaders had taken two distinct steps to turn those guns into more than just souvenirs.
First, rangers got hold of the guns and began wearing them while on duty near the Gay Head Cliffs. They were supposed to patrol the beaches in a non-confrontational, informational capacity as special officers under the supervision of town police.
Then, tribal leaders put the finishing touches on a grant application that a couple months later would win $274,436 in federal funds from the Department of Justice (DOJ) to start up the tribe's own three-member police force complete with two vehicles, a boat, more guns and bullet-proof vests.
Both actions sparked controversy, pitting town against tribe. On the issue of rangers arming themselves, the chief and selectmen remain adamantly opposed, citing liability risks to the town. As far as a tribal police force is concerned, the chief and at least one selectman question both the tribe's authority and the need for such an undertaking in a town where most police work involves traffic and medical emergencies, not violent crime.
On the tribal side, leaders contend that as a federally-recognized tribe, they have the sovereign right to establish their own law enforcement and judicial system for tribal members. Rangers have lobbied for guns on the grounds that they need them for protection. Tribal leaders, however, admit that their rangers acted without tribal approval both in obtaining the guns and then in wearing them while on duty. Reprimanded, the rangers were later given permission to wear guns during the tribal hunting season, which ends Wednesday.
"Sooner or later, we will implement the [police] grant," tribal council chairman Beverly Wright said this week. "But we want our neighbors to be comfortable with what we're doing in the town of Aquinnah."
To be sure, relations between the town and tribe are strained at the moment, and while officials sound eager to patch things up through a series of face-to-face meetings (one of them was scheduled for last night), there are serious sticking points. They range from legal wrangling over who has jurisdiction to the volatile topic of handguns.
Settling the issue of jurisdiction could be difficult. Selectman Karl Burgess defends the position that court settlements and legislation giving Wampanoags federal recognition in the 1980s granted only limited powers to the tribe. "It's hard because the tribe feels very strongly," he said. "But the fact of the matter is that the settlement precludes a lot of these things."
Federal legislation passed in 1987 states: "The Wampanoag Tribal Council shall not have any jurisdiction over nontribal members." That law further prohibits the tribe from exercising jurisdiction that runs counter to state or local laws. Also, a joint memorandum of understanding that came out of a United States District Court decision in 1983 ruled, "no Indian tribe shall ever exercise sovereign jurisdiction . . . over all or any part of the Settlement lands."
But Mrs. Wright is emphatic about her tribe's right to create its own law enforcement unit. She also points to documents that support her position. A 1987 congressional committee report explained that the law passed by Congress that same year would allow the tribe "to assume concurrent jurisdiction over its own members."
Only 100 Wampanoags live on tribal land in Aquinnah, and the latest tribal census counts 992 members in all. While Mrs. Wright contends that the goal is to police only these tribal members, the Wampanoag's grant application to the Justice Department gives a vastly different impression, listing the service population for the desired police force as 15,000 in winter and 111,000 in summer. Explicit instructions on the form ask applicants to count only the "population for which your law enforcement department has primary law enforcement authority" and to "exclude the population primarily served by other law enforcement agencies."
And when asked for a service area, instead of writing down tribal land holdings that total over 400 acres, the response was 20 square miles.
"What was reported in the grant, was not our area of jurisdiction but our area of response," explains tribal administrator Laurie Perry. "We respond to Island things like search and rescue and hurricanes. We want to be networking."
But Chief Fortes said such responses simply don't wash. "They have skewed things, and it's disheartening," he said. The chief, a Wampanoag himself who lives in the tribal village, is particularly frustrated by how the grant application "disavows any connection with any other law enforcement agency."
On the form, the tribe responded that it had no contract with a local law enforcement agency for services. In fact, a legal agreement between the town and tribe was adopted in 1995 and amended last March, spelling out public safety services that the town will provide the tribe in exchange for an annual payment of $8,500 in lieu of taxes.
But according to Ms. Perry, that agreement is not a formal contract. "Yes, we do have a tribe-town agreement that we initiated to provide payments to the town," she said, "but [the town] has to provide that coverage anyway." If the tribe had chosen to view that document as a contract for police services, it would have immediately made the tribe ineligible for the grant under the federal guidelines.
At stake was funding to pay the salaries and training of three police officers, two full-time and one part-time, over three years. Then there were the supplies - three more Glock handguns, three bulletproof vests, a Boston Whaler patrol boat, a four-wheel-drive truck and an all-terrain vehicle. The tribe is supposed to match the $271,000 grant with its own $144,759.
And as the years progress, the tribe is expected to assume a greater share of the costs. According to a plan filed with the DOJ by the tribe's director of natural resources, Matthew (Cully) Vanderhoop, "fines, forfeitures and civil penalties, collected by increased officer presence, (will) be used as future matching requirements for these positions." Mr. Vanderhoop also wrote that other grants might help pay officer salaries in the future.
Official town reaction to the police grant is mixed. Selectmen chairman Michael Hebert said flatly that the police grant is "the tribe's own business," adding that he is far more concerned with healing the rift between the town and tribe over rangers wearing guns.
It's a different story with Chief Fortes and Mr. Burgess, both of whom challenge the tribe's right to set up its own law enforcement agency. "Show me," the chief said, "where does it say the Wampanoag Tribe can employ, equip and administer its own police force?"
Beyond the jurisdiction issue, the two town leaders question the need. "We don't have much crime here," said Mr. Burgess. "And I believe our police do a more than adequate job."
The chief is even more blunt about the reality of policing in Aquinnah. "We get EMS (emergency medical service) calls, traffic enforcement and we essentially herd tourists," he said. "In the summer and shoulder season, we have all we can handle, and situations do pop up, but we have what I consider a very nominal threat level."
Even more troubling to Mr. Burgess and the chief are the potential complications raised by armed tribal police charged with patrolling tribal lands and enforcing laws against tribal members. The chief said he lies awake some nights thinking through scenarios. Tribal lands, he points out, are not contiguous, which means tribal police on patrol would have to travel on town roads.
"I don't believe they really think it through," he said. "If somebody flags them down, and they're standing on the town macadam with no power of arrest and a gun strapped to their side, how crazy is that?"
Finally, the chief is concerned about the implications of funding tribal police as federal grant portions shrink. "They'll exact taxes and fees on the backs of the tribe," he said. "I don't think a whole lot of tribal members have thought about this. I like to think of it as a third set of handcuffs for tribal members."
Tribal leaders tried five years ago to start their own police department, having won a similar federal grant, but could not raise the matching funds required. This most recent effort, though, has momentum, and Chief Fortes said the escalating pressure is coming from the tribe's department of natural resources, which operates the ranger program.
Neither Mr. Vanderhoop, the director of that department, nor tribal ranger Jeff Day would speak to the Gazette, but Chief Fortes said that rangers have pushed for permission to carry guns, especially in the summer when they are traditionally appointed as special officers through the Aquinnah police department.
The arrival of guns at tribal headquarters in the fall of 1999 brought the issue to a head the following July when rangers refused to patrol the beaches unless Chief Fortes allowed them to carry guns. Then in late July, Chief Fortes spotted rangers wearing guns while they were eating lunch at the Cliffs. He complained to the tribal council, which then took the guns away from the rangers.
"They just got the idea they could wear full defensive equipment," said Ms. Perry. "It was a bad idea on their part." But again in late September, the chief saw rangers with guns who told him the tribal council had authorized the weapons. In fact, it wasn't until Nov. 15 that the tribal council voted to allow their rangers to carry firearms during the Wampanoag hunting season, and only on tribal lands.
By late November, Chief Fortes had recommended revoking the special officer status of two rangers, Mr. Day and Jason Baird. Within weeks, the two rangers resigned as special officers of the Aquinnah police.
For Chief Fortes, though, the guns remain the issue whether tribal rangers are acting as special officers under his supervision or not. If a ranger is armed, the chief is concerned about the risks. "What if [rangers] are down off the Cliffs here and somebody's got a head full of beer? He doesn't like cops, and all of sudden you've got the ranger in draw-down situation with this guy because he's pulled a weapon," said the chief. "Once that weapon is pulled, all bets are off. And who is supervising this individual?"
Officials on both sides of the issue are anxious to mend fences and avoid a standoff, but the chief finds himself in a unique spot: a tribal member and a town leader staunchly opposed to the latest moves by the tribe to arm its rangers and to put its own police on the streets.
"It's put me in a position of difficulty, but I can speak and nobody's going to point to me and say, ‘You're anti-tribe, you're bigoted,' " he said. "It's important that I follow through on my convictions about this. This is not some isolated tribe in the middle of the Dakotas or Oklahoma. These are lands in trust in the midst of tony Martha's Vineyard and liberal Massachusetts, and people care very much about what goes on here."