The chairman of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) vowed Tuesday to move ahead with plans to build a class II gaming facility in Aquinnah — and quickly.

Chairman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais said the tribe is “totally cleared” to build a casino facility in Aquinnah and would do so in a matter of months, not years. She said the tribe is looking for a partner in the project.

Class II casinos are restricted to games of bingo, and various card and table games where players can bet against each other but not against a dealer or the house.

“We hope that people will be able to understand that it’s our right,” Mrs. Andrews-Maltais told reporters in a conference call Tuesday afternoon.

The call followed the morning announcement that a legal opinion from the National Indian Gaming Commission has cleared the tribe to build a casino on land it owns on the Island.
The opinion was issued in a letter Oct. 25 from Indian Gaming Commission acting general counsel Eric Shepard.

“It is my opinion that the specified lands are Indian lands as defined by IGRA [Indian Gaming Regulatory Act] and are eligible for gaming,” Mr. Shepard wrote. The letter was a response to an August 29 letter from Mrs. Andrews-Maltais requesting an opinion as to whether “certain land held in trust” by the tribe was eligible for gaming.

“The tribe has consistently asserted that we have the right to game on our lands in Aquinnah," Mrs. Andrews-Maltais said in a press release issued Tuesday. “These approvals confirm our position. We are thrilled!”

The announcement comes five days before a heated tribal election where she is being challenged for her seat by former tribal administrator Tobias Vanderhoop.

Speaking to reporters from Washington, D.C., Mrs. Andrews-Maltais said she felt there was an appetite for gaming on the Island, and the rest of the Island would benefit economically.

She said the tribe would continue to work to sit down with the governor to negotiate a compact to operate a class III casino. Class III facilities, which include blackjack, slot machines, and other high stakes games normally associated with large resort-style casinos, require state approval.

The opinion from the Indian Gaming Commission is contradictory to the position taken by the Aquinnah town attorney and Gov. Deval Patrick, who both say the tribe is barred from building a casino under the terms of a 1983 land claims settlement agreement with the town. As a result, Governor Patrick has refused to negotiate with the tribe for the one casino license in Massachusetts reserved for an Indian tribe. In another development on Tuesday, the state legislature ratified a compact between the state and the Mashpee Wampanoags for that license.

Aquinnah town counsel Ronald H. Rappaport reacted to the latest news from the Vineyard tribe. “I’ve read the letter from the National Indian Gaming Commission of Oct. 25; I have not read the other letters referred to in that letter,” Mr. Rappaport said. “But based on my preliminary review, nothing in that letter would change my opinion. Which is that gaming is not allowed on tribal lands under the terms of the 1983 settlement agreement, state enabling act and act of Congress ratifying the agreement.

“I would also note that the Massachusetts governor’s office and state gaming commission have taken the same position.”

The 6,000-square-foot community center where Mrs. Andrews-Maltais is now proposing a bingo hall remains an unfinished building with no occupancy permit from the town. The building was reviewed and approved by the Martha's Vineyard Commission in 2007 for use as a tribal gathering place and function hall. Games of chance were not included in the description at the time. The tribal chairman said Tuesday that a bingo facility would require no further review by the commission.

“The lands are Indian lands which we have jurisidction over and the building is already built,” she said, adding that she didn't think the tribe needed to go before the commission in the first place and a previous chairman had made that decision. She said the tribe would be“happy to sit down and keep the MVC apprised of what we are doing.”