As the scramble to reach first in casino gambling continues in Massachusetts, the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) caused a small stir when it announced last week that the tribe is considering some kind of casino operation on the Vineyard.
“The tribe currently holds land in trust on Martha’s Vineyard for economic development and we would consider that option,” a new Web site launched by the tribe declared last week. “There is no legal impediment for us to open a casino on our trust land. Martha’s Vineyard is a very popular tourist destination that could certainly support a smaller-scale casino.”
Led by its chairman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais under the auspices of the Aquinnah Gaming Corporation, the tribe is now vying for the right to win one of three casino licenses that will be issued by the new Massachusetts Gaming Commission sometime in the near future. The commission was established by Gov. Deval Patrick following the passage of a law to allow gambling in the commonwealth last year. The gaming commission met for the first time last week and will oversee bids for the licenses, due July 31.
The tribe reportedly has three pieces of land under consideration in Lakeville, Freetown and Fall River to build a commercial casino, and has asked to enter into negotiations with the governor’s office for a gaming license for one of those three sites. The state has requested more information.
In a separate letter on March 27, Mrs. Andrews-Maltais told the state of the tribe’s plan to build a casino on tribal lands on the Vineyard. The specific location on the Island has not been described.
“The tribe also intends to game on existing trust lands under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act . . . that request stands separate and apart from our request under state law,” Mrs. Andrews-Maltais wrote in the letter.
The state again requested more information in an April 6 response to the chairman’s letter, including the specific location and whether it is eligible for gaming. A spokesman for the governor’s office said this week that the tribe had not responded yet.
In an interview with the Gazette last month, Mrs. Andrews-Maltais revealed for the first time that the tribe was considering a casino on the Vineyard.
“We’re not taking any options off the table — it is our inherent right to do so,” she said. “But the manner in which we do it is what we would take very seriously. Would you ever see a Foxwoods or Las Vegas style casino here? I can safely say I’d vote against it, I don’t want to see that. But something that would be conducive to the Island, a modest small footprint . . . yes, that would be something that would still be on the table.”
Last Tuesday the Vineyard Wampanoags celebrated their 25th anniversary as the first tribe in the state to win federal recognition. The Mashpee Wampanoags, who are also vying for the right to build a casino, won federal recognition in 2007. The Vineyard tribe has about 300 members on the Island.
In 2004 the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the Vineyard tribe had waived part of its sovereignty when it signed a settlement agreement with the town in 1986, and as a result is bound to follow state and local zoning laws for land use and development projects.
Aquinnah selectman and board chairman Jim Newman asked town counsel Ronald H. Rappaport this week for an opinion on casino development in Aquinnah, and Mr. Rappaport confirmed yesterday that he would be writing an opinion. Citing the state Supreme Court case involving the tribe and its sovereignty, the town counsel said tribal lands held in trust such as the property known as the Strock lands are subject to zoning as it existed at the time of the settlement agreement. Because of that, Mr. Rappaport said, “in my opinion, a casino is not allowed under zoning.”
Meanwhile, in the interview with the Gazette last month, Mrs. Andrews-Maltais spoke at length about an array of topics, including the wider impact of bringing a casino to the area.
She said a casino would go beyond gaming. “We have the opportunity to purchase these parcels not only for the purposes of gaming but also for the purposes of mixed use,” Mrs. Andrews-Maltais said. “We have a need for land for tribal housing, economic development, health care, day care, elder services, and preservation and protection of culturally significant features that are also contained on these parcels.
“It is all about jobs and an economic boost to whoever is the host community.”
Some Vineyard tribal members in recent weeks have described a lack of communication between Mrs. Andrews-Maltais and the general membership, but the tribal chairman disputed this, saying that the direction has been clearly known and communicated to members at every turn. And she drew a distinction between division and dissension.
“You have a handful of dissenters which is clearly different than having division in the tribe,” she said. “That’s evidenced by the way that the elections have been going. If the general membership was truly divided, there would be a move to remove me.”
She also issued a stern warning for tribal members who speak outside of the lines of authority.
“All council members were instructed to have [casino] inquiries directed to me as the chairman of the tribe and gaming corporation. Anyone who went outside that directive is outside of tribal council directive and stands in peril of being in conflict of interest and code of conduct,” she said. “We do have specific codes of conduct and codes of ethics that are supposed to be maintained, and whenever anyone steps outside of tribal directive like that, they’re breaching that responsibility to their position as a tribal council member.”
Mrs. Andrews-Maltais also spoke frankly about the past foibles of the tribe, including the failed casino venture some 20 years ago that was spectacularly expensive, costing more than $8 million. “I can’t speak to the previous debt, it wasn’t on my watch. I was on the budget and finance committee back then and we took real issue with how that money was being expended,” she said. “There was a lot of extravagance . . . . What people don’t really understand is you’re not spending someone else’s money, you’re spending your money.”
It’s a new day, she said simply. “That was then, this is now. We’re moving and moving faster than we have done and things that hadn’t moved in five or eight years are well underway. It’s a long battle — 25 years underneath this structure is really very new. We’re still adapting to what it is to have a tribal government.”
And finally, she described the tribe’s relationship to the rest of the Island as a high priority. “When we say our Island, it is our Island. We take that literally,” Mrs. Andrews-Maltais said. “We share our Island with everybody else . . . we’re a very small community, the Island community as a whole. And we know whatever benefits our tribe will ultimately benefit this Island community and that’s what we look at. We have to live here too.”