Wampanoag tribal leaders reacted with disappointment and casino opponents with relief following a ruling by a federal judge Friday denying the tribe the right to build a casino on tribal land in Aquinnah.

“I am dismayed with the ruling by Judge Saylor, as it directly impacts the tribe’s ability to pursue a proven economic development path that has positively impacted many federally-recognized Indian tribes,” said tribal chairman Tobias Vanderhoop in a statement Monday.

In the 40-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Dennis Saylor 4th said the tribe does not exert “sufficient governmental power” over its own land to qualify for such a gambling facility under the Indian Gaming Rights Act, a law passed by Congress in 1988 establishing a regulatory framework for gaming on Indian land. For example, the tribe does not provide its own independent police, fire and emergency services, he wrote, and did not show evidence of enough responsibility for other services.

More significantly, the judge said the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act does not invalidate the Massachusetts Settlement Act, the 1987 law passed by Congress that among other things gave the Wampanoag tribe 485 acres of land in Gay Head (today Aquinnah), but also required compliance with state and local laws, including prohibitions on gambling.

In effect, the tribe “cannot build a gaming facility on the settlement lands without complying with the laws and regulations of the commonwealth and the town,” the judge wrote in granting summary judgment to the state, the town and the community association.

“What this decision means is no gaming in Aquinnah. This is a great result for the town and for the Island,” said Aquinnah town counsel Ronald H. Rappaport.

Work to convert tribal community center to bingo hall was halted during federal court proceeding. — Mark Lovewell

In his statement Monday, Mr. Vanderhoop did not rule out an appeal, adding the tribal council first needed to “fully review the ruling, its implications and all options.”

“We believe that the exercise of our governmental authority is inherent in the intergovernmental agreements that we have chosen to establish and we will pursue a course of action that will defend our rights and status as a tribal government,” he said.

But a legal effort to convert a vacant and unfinished community center in Aquinnah to a gambling hall now appears to face much steeper odds. And the setback throws a wrench into tribal leadership’s plans to tap into casino revenue to promote its economic development and fund various tribal programs. The gambling issue also has divided the tribe, with many Island members rejecting a casino but off-Island members showing significant support.

Coincidentally the court ruling came two days before the quarterly general membership meeting of the tribe.

Speaking to the Gazette Monday, tribal member Donald Widdiss said about 50 people attended the meeting Sunday in Aquinnah, where the court decision was discussed. “The upshot was that they are obviously not prepared to even begin to make a decision as to what the next step will be,” he said. “The judge pretty much took care of the basic issues,” he added, noting the thoroughness of the decision. He also said the ruling came as little surprise. “You would have to be living in a cave not to understand that it was at best a long shot,” said Mr. Widdiss, a casino opponent.

Juli Vanderhoop, a tribal member and Aquinnah selectman, said reaction was widespread over the weekend. “I have heard a lot of great response from people around the community, and then the tribal community as well,” she said. “A lot of relief.”

She did not believe the casino efforts had weakened town-tribe relations. “I think that some of the people really thought that this was the key to our economic success. But I think that we are no worse off than we were going in,” she said. “I don’t think that there were hard feelings.”

The ruling dealt with cross motions for summary judgment — a judicial decision short of a trial, based on an agreed set of facts and prevailing law.

The decision recounts the complicated background in the case which dates to 1983 when the tribe, the state, the town of Gay Head and a taxpayer group that was the predecessor to the community association signed the land claims settlement agreement that was a decade in the making. The agreement was ratified by the Massachusetts legislature in 1985 and adopted by Congress in 1987. The agreement subjected the tribe to state and town civil and criminal laws; Congress added language that includes the right to regulate or prohibit “the conduct of bingo or any other game of chance.” This language became pivotal in the gambling litigation more than 25 years later.

Judge Saylor indicated that IGRA and the settlement act don’t necessarily clash, because IGRA allows for gambling restrictions if they are specifically included in another federal law, and the language in settlement act does exactly that.

In fact, because IGRA and the settlement act were endorsed by the same Congress, legislative history suggests that lawmakers intentionally exempted the tribe’s law from some from some provisions of IGRA.

“The two statutes are not merely capable of co-existence; rather, both can be given full effect,” the judge wrote. “IGRA permits tribes to engage in class II gaming on their land unless it is specifically prohibited by federal law . . . . When Congress passed IGRA, the settlement act was an existing federal law that specifically prohibited gaming on the settlement lands.”

Earlier in the decision he summed up the issue: “If the 1988 law [IGRA] controls, the tribe can build a gaming facility in Aquinnah. If the 1987 law controls, it cannot.”

The ruling also exhaustively examines pertinent case law, including one case involving a native American tribe in Rhode Island and another in Maine.

Ultimately Judge Saylor noted his role was to rule on narrow legal issues, leaving the broader questions about legalized gambling to the political system.

“Whether an Indian tribe should be permitted to operate a casino on Martha’s Vineyard is a matter of considerable public interest,” he wrote. “This lawsuit is not, however about the advisability of legalized gambling. Nor is it about the proper course of land development on Martha’s Vineyard, or how best to preserve the unique environment and heritage of the Island. And it is not about the appropriate future path for the Wampanoag people.

“If there are answers to those questions, they are properly left to the political branches in our system of government. The role of the court here is a narrow one, and it expresses no opinion of any kind about the broader issues underlying this dispute.”

Alex Elvin contributed reporting.