With a pivotal tribal election days away, the prospect of a Vineyard casino was thrust back into the spotlight this week as the chairman of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) announced the tribe was moving ahead to build a gaming facility in Aquinnah.
Chairman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais said the tribe is “totally cleared” to convert the tribe’s unfinished community center into what is known as a Class II gaming operation and would do so in a matter of months. She said the tribe is looking for a partner in the project.
“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 release by the tribal chairman of an opinion from the National Indian Gaming Commission, the federal agency responsible for overseeing Indian gaming, that concluded the tribe has a right to build a casino on land it owns on the Island.
The opinion, from acting NIGC general counsel Eric Shepard, is at odds with legal positions taken by state and Aquinnah town officials who say the tribe knowingly forfeited certain rights in a 1983 land claims settlement agreement that led to its federal recognition by Congress.
Those differing views could set up a protracted legal battle that would likely push the spectre of a casino on Martha’s Vineyard far into the future.
“It isn’t a court ruling, that’s for sure,” said Jeffrey Madison, longtime tribal member and former chairman of the Aquinnah selectmen, referring to the opinion. “The National Indian Gaming Commission opines on such matters and they’ve given their opinion.”
Release of the letter came five days before a heated election for the top leadership position at the tribe. Mrs. Andrews-Maltais, who is running for her third term, is being challenged by Tobias Vanderhoop, a former tribal administrator. The election takes place Sunday at tribal headquarters in Aquinnah.
The Vineyard tribe has long sought an entry into gaming, beginning in 1990s when the tribe launched an expensive but unsuccessful effort to build a casino in New Bedford.
After the state passed a new gaming law in 2011 setting aside one of three new commercial casino licenses for an Indian tribe, the Vineyard tribe again wanted to create a casino on the mainland, getting as far as identifying a 515-acre parcel in Lakeview and Freetown where it could be sited.
But the tribe was rebuffed by Gov. Deval Patrick, who refused to negotiate with the tribe and instead concluded a compact with the WampanoagTribe of Mashpee, citing the tribe’s 1983 settlement agreement. In a related development Tuesday, the state legislature ratified the compact between the state and the Mashpee Wampanoags for that license.
The gaming facility envisioned by Ms. Andrews-Maltais for Aquinnah falls under a different section of the federal Indian Gaming Rights Act of 1988, which provides conditions under which tribes can create so-called Class II gaming facilities on tribal land without state permission. Class II facilities are allowed to use certain electronic bingo and card games, but are specifically prohibited from having slot machines and other high-stakes games normally associated with resort casinos.
But Aquinnah town counsel Ronald H. Rappaport said the land claims settlement act also bars the tribe from operating a gaming facility on the Vineyard.
“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,” he 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, the state enabling act and the act of Congress ratifying the agreement. “I would also note that the Massachu setts governor’s office and state gaming commission have taken the same position.” On Wednesday the governor’s office also stood by its interpretation of the law. “The Aquinnah’s Land Claims Settlement Act, and the related settlement agreement, acknowledges, preserves and protects the commonwealth’s authority to regulate gaming both on the Aquinnah’s land in Gay Head and on any after-acquired land within Massachusetts,” the governor’s chief legal counsel Kate Cook said in a statement. “Therefore, the Aquinnah may operate a gaming facility only with a commercial gaming license. That position is based on the land settlement agreement, which was approved by the state legislature, Congress and relevant case law.”
Ms. Andrews-Maltais told the Gazette in an email Thursday that she had spoken to the governor, who she said “was committed to having intergovernmental engagement, not only on this issue but also moving forward on other issues we face.”
The announcement that a casino was planned for the Vineyard made immediate headlines with regional print, broadcast and online media.
Bruce Sacerdote, a professor of economics at Dartmouth College who co-authored a 2005 report on casino gambling in Massachusetts, said the negative fallout of placing a casino in Aquinnah would likely outweigh modest additional job and revenue creation. Impacts could include a reduction in property values, increased utility costs and increased traffic.
“Think about how insane this is,” said Mr. Sacerdote, a longtime Island visitor. “You’re going to have people travel the already crowded ferry system, the already crowded road system . . . it’s arguably the most far-flung part of the Cape.”
And some town and tribal leaders questioned both the timing of the news and the meaning of it.
“I think it’s suspect that it was announced now [days before the election],” said Beverly Wright, chairman of the Aquinnah selectmen and former chairman of the tribe.
“We’ve known we could game on our tribal land as a class II casino since we became federally recognized in 1987, what is new is that the NIGC has put it in writing,” Ms. Wright said.
But gaming is not what the election is about, she said.
“Gaming is only one piece of economic developing in regard to the election, it’s who can lead us forward and be receptive to what the views are of tribal members, how we’re perceived in the community and how we’re perceived by everyone else,” she said.
The president of the Aquinnah Gay Head Taxpayers Association said his group will fight any casino plans in Aquinnah.
“We strongly disagree with any assertion that the settlement agreement and related acts have been superseded by the way of IGRA,” said Larry Hohlt. “To me, it’s just a very misguided approach to it. We will do what it takes to fight any effort to establish a casino in Aquinnah.”
As chairman of the tribe, Ms. Wright led the tribe’s first gaming initiative, which called for a commercial casino in New Bedford. She is not in favor of a casino on the Vineyard but would support an off-Island facility.
“My position has not changed — I do not want to do gaming on our land in Aquinnah,” she said. “It would be great if a community would welcome us on the mainland. I have adamantly been opposed since to the mid-1990s to gaming on Martha’s Vineyard.”
Selectman and tribal member Spencer Booker said he was not surprised at the announcement about class II gaming on tribal lands, but noted a different style of diplomacy taken on by the current tribal administration. “Previous administrations up until this administration have always gone the route of not doing it on tribal lands,” he said, “which is why since the 1990s we’ve been trying to do it on the mainland. And that’s still where it should be.”
Many tribal members are opposed to building a casino on tribal lands in Aquinnah, Mr. Booker said.
“When you’re on an Island there’s only so much land to go around and I think we need to maintain it in a way that provides for many more generations to come, not just the here and now generation,” he said.
As a selectman, Mr. Booker said public safety and financial burdens on the town were primary concerns.
“There’s only one way in and one way out of that town,” he said. “I have an obligation [as a selectman] . . . for any enterprise that wants to come within town boundaries of Aquinnah without a proposal to the townspeople or the leaders of that town to try and set up shop without any conversation related to emergency services, fire, police and the costs associated with that.”
Mr. Madison was part of the tribe’s efforts in the 1990s to bring a casino to the mainland. He said the culture around casinos is different now.
“We never tried to do anything on Martha’s Vineyard,” he said.
Mr. Vanderhoop, who is challenging Mrs. Andrews-Maltais in the election Sunday, said he was pleased that the tribe’s rights had been affirmed by the Indian Gaming Commission but questioned the timing of the announcement.
“The timing of the release is interesting to say the least . . . it brings one to ask the question — why at this particular moment?” he said.
Mr. Vanderhoop said he supports an “appropriate gaming initiative,” but said he needed more information to decide whether that would be on the Island or mainland.
“Since the announcement, I have been hearing mixed reactions, specifically from tribal members certainly voicing concern,” Mr. Vanderhoop said. “Clearly there is a need for communication that people feel is lacking and frankly hasn’t been shown to be a priority.”
Sara Brown contributed reporting.