With an election set for this month to decide the top leadership post at the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) for the next three years, tribal members will face a clear choice: stay the course with a tribal chairman who has been at the helm for the past six years, or choose a new leader who is pitching the need for openness and change.
The election for chairman of the tribe is Nov. 17. Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, 55, the two-term chairman of the tribe, is being challenged for her seat by Tobias Vanderhoop, 39, the former tribal administrator.
The race appears heated, has been more visible than usual and comes as the Vineyard’s only federally recognized Native American tribe stands at a crossroads, with opportunities for casino gambling opening up for the first time in the history of the commonwealth and a contingent of young tribal members coming of age.
Mr. Vanderhoop says he represents that new group of members and wants to set a course for the future. Mrs. Andrews-Maltais says she has unfinished business to complete and the experience needed to get things done.
In interviews with the Gazette this week both candidates outlined their broad visions for the tribe, whose membership numbers about 1,300, with some 300 members living on the Vineyard. About 900 tribal members are eligible to vote in the upcoming election.
Mrs. Andrews-Maltais, who was elected chairman in 2007, said that the tribe has come a long way since achieving federal recognition three decades ago.
“I believe the tribe has reached a maturity level that we haven’t reached before,” she said. “We’re at a moment where expansion of services is more critical than ever.”
Looking back, she said her first term was spent putting the tribe’s financial house in order. Audits dating to 2005 needed completion for federal government review and federal grant funding was in jeopardy.
She said her second term saw expansion of programs. She negotiated a heating assistance program with Citgo for tribal members in the six New England states and New York and New Jersey. She established health clinics to be held on general membership days and created a tribal health access program.
“Because we were immature for the first 23 years we weren’t doing anything that benefits anyone except for [on the Island],” she said. “As you mature you become more and more independent . . . we run our programs and services the way we should be run.”
She emphasized the need to expand the reach of the tribe to its mainland members. “Most cannot afford to come here to live because of the cost of housing and limited job opportunities,” she said.
Mrs. Andrews-Maltais has led an effort by the tribe to pursue some kind of casino license following passage of a state law in 2011 to create three gambling licenses. One is reserved for a federally recognized Indian tribe, and the Mashpee Wampanoags are in the final stages of negotiating a compact with the governor for that license.
And while she had no specifics, Mrs. Andrews-Maltais said that the Vineyard tribe intends to continue to pursue every option for gaming, both on and off the Island. “The tribe has an absolute right to game on our tribal lands or any lands we acquire in trust,” she said. In legal opinions the state Attorney General and Aquinnah town counsel have both said the tribe is barred from building a gambling facility on the Vineyard under the terms of a 1986 land claims settlement. But Mrs. Andrews-Maltais said they are simply wrong. “There is a lack of familiarity with [the law allowing Indian gaming rights] by the local counsel, state counsel and state attorney general,” she said. “Our plans are to continue to move forward with the gaming initiative.”
She acknowledged strained relations between the tribe and the town of Aquinnah, but said the problem can be tracked directly to a longstanding personal rift between her and Beverly Wright, the former tribal chairman who is now chairman of the selectmen. “We have a distinct personality clash and we always have,” Mrs. Andrews-Maltais said. She predicted that tensions will ease when the board changes its chairmanship following the spring annual town elections. “I will wait until May,” she said.
Mrs. Andrews-Maltais grew up in Dartmouth. Her grandmother lived on the Vineyard; she is a member of the Occooch family. She was educated in public schools, attended Miami University in Ohio but left to go to work, first in sales and later as a regional manager for a company. She is married with one daughter, Samantha, who is a senior at St. George’s, a private school in Newport, R.I. She moved to the Vineyard with her family 15 years ago and lives in Edgartown. Her Wampanoag roots are long and deep; she used to be a competitive tribal dancer, made regalia for tribal socials and powwows, and taught the craft to younger generations. She has served as personnel director, tribal historic preservation officer and a member of tribal council.
“I wasn’t at Luther’s knee,” she said, referring to the late Luther Madison, longtime medicine man for the Vineyard Wampanoag tribe. “But I always felt deeply rooted.”
On her long drives up-Island to Aquinnah, she likes to listen to tribal music and the talk news radio station WXTK. Outside of work, she said she likes sailing and jewelry making.
Next week, Mrs. Andrews-Maltais heads to Washington, D.C., to attend the White House Tribal Leaders Presidential Summit. She has been nominated to represent 26 federal recognized tribes from Texas to Maine in meetings with President Obama.
“I’m campaigning on strength and knowledge and experience and ability,” she concluded. “Taking on the mantle of tribal leadership is more than just a job, it’s more than smiling and doing things, you have to know what you’re talking about and you have to be strong in your understanding in what these things are and what our responsibility is.”
Like his opponent, Tobias Vanderhoop wants to expand economic opportunities through gaming, but beyond that his platform is distinctly different and centered on change.
“More diplomacy is needed,” he said. “The key issue is inclusion of many voices and making sure that people are heard. People need to be approached in a different way and need to be invited back to the table. We can disagree without being disagreeable. It doesn’t take anything more than a willingness to listen.”
With a group of young organizers behind him, including his campaign manager Tiffany Smalley, Mr. Vanderhoop has launched a new approach for tribal elections. He has a website and is using social media to reach voters, along with the more traditional approach of calling people on the telephone and knocking on doors. “We are using the full tool bag,” he said. “I feel that people are hungry to have these discussions. I have been so thankful for the discussions, even the tough discussions. Having many voices is the only way our tribe is going to be successful.”
As for town-tribe relations, Mr. Vanderhoop said if elected his goal is to mend fences. “There’s somewhat of a tense conversation, or lack thereof, going between the town and the tribe,” he said. “That idea of a tenuous relationship between the tribe and the town needs to be dispelled because I know the town is willing to talk to us, and as a leader I am willing to talk to the town.”
He emphasized the need for diverse economic development.
“The only way to ensure that we are going to serve our people is to become self-sufficient, and self-sufficiency can come from gaming, absolutely,” he said. “There has to be a way for us to continue to pursue an appropriate gaming initiative and our people have to decide what appropriate means.”
He said: “I started out as an educator and so I think that is where my focus on listening, but also being able to communicate, comes from.”
Mr. Vanderhoop, 39, grew up in Everett and received his undergraduate degree in community planning and management from the University of Massachusetts in Boston. But the Vineyard was always home, he said. Growing up, he was a member of the tribe’s youth council and involved himself with cultural education and community service.
He moved to the Island full-time in 1992. He is the great-grandson of Leonard Vanderhoop Sr. and the grandson of Edwin D. Vanderhoop.
“I had the idea that if I came back here what I could do was work for our tribe,” he said. “I have loved the opportunities that the tribe has afforded me since I’ve come home.”
He served on the tribal council three times, and during that period he commuted to the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. He received a master’s degree in public administration in 2008.
He later went on to serve as tribal administrator for more than four years and is currently chief administrator for the tribe’s judicial court. He also works for his uncle at Aquinnah Drywall.
He lives in Aquinnah and is unmarried. He has a strong interest in promoting tribal culture in Vineyard schools.
“The tribe has always served a very important role in advocating for our youth in the schools,” he said.
When Mr. Vanderhoop isn’t working, he’s a drummer and singer in the tribe’s Black Brook Singers group and a certified teacher of the Wopanaak language. He is currently reading True North by Bill George.
“I still do a lot of community service,” he said. “I don’t see that as work at all. I feel like I’m building the relationships that are so extremely important.”