The Aquinnah bingo hall judgment, final now that the Supreme Court declined to review it, is a welcome affirmation of the sovereignty of the Wampanoag tribe. The history of American Indians, including the Wampanoags, since European contact is one of steady degradation of the right to self-determination. The process of restoring what’s been lost is slow and often obscured by the specific issues at hand, such as gaming. But we must keep our eyes on the ball: how can the sovereignty of the Wampanoags over their spiritual and ancestral homeland be secured?

Tribal sovereignty has been a fundamental principle of U.S. constitutional law since the early days of the Republic. It means that tribes, like states, enjoy a direct relationship with the federal government, and that they are not bound by the laws of the state in which they sit. Most importantly, tribal sovereignty recognizes, however incompletely, the millennia of human civilization that predated European contact. It also ensures that the federal government can make unified policy toward American Indians.

The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, or IGRA, is an example of such federal regulation. IGRA, passed in 1988, provides a comprehensive legal framework for different kinds of games. Bingo, for example, is treated differently from casino-type games, which tribes may pursue only after signing a compact with the state. (Fears of something even faintly resembling an up-Island Foxwoods are thus wildly overblown.) IGRA reflects a compromise between tribes, states, and the federal government that balances gaming, a critical source of revenue for tribes, with states’ interest in strict regulation.

But there is a wrinkle in the Wampanoag litigation. The case turned on whether IGRA did in fact authorize the Wampanoag to build a bingo hall, or whether the tribe forfeited that right in a settlement agreement that Wampanoag leaders signed the year before IGRA was enacted.

The settlement agreement was the latest in a long history of changes to the legal status of land held by the Wampanoag which have narrowed their autonomy at every turn. For the first 200 years of European settlement on the Island, Gay Head was left as an independent district in order to preserve the Wampanoags’ communal ownership of their land. Then in 1869, the legislature incorporated Gay Head over the objection of its Wampanoag residents and transferred to the new native-led town the title of 400 acres of commonly held lands. By the 1970s, enough non-native residents had moved to Gay Head that the Wampanoag had lost exclusive control over development on the 400 acres.

In response, Wampanoag leaders formed the Wampanoag Tribal Council of Gay Head Inc. The tribal council was a nonprofit corporation organized under state law. The plan was for the all-Wampanoag board of selectmen to vote to transfer the land from the town to the tribal council. The Gay Head taxpayers’ association, comprising mainly non-native residents, sued to block the measure. The dispute continued until 1987, when the parties agreed that the land would be transferred to a newly recognized federal tribe — but subject to state land law. Congress adopted the terms of the settlement agreement, and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head received federal recognition the following year.

The settlement agreement was at the heart of the recent legal wrangling. The district court judge made two findings against the tribe: that IGRA did not replace the settlement act’s interdiction on gaming, and that the tribe could not claim IGRA’s protections because it did not exercise “sufficient governmental power” over the land. These conclusions were deeply insulting to the tribe.

The First Circuit rectified the error. The appellate judges credited the tribe for the wide range of services that it provides to its members, including housing, health care, education and public safety. The court also held that IGRA repealed the relevant portions of the settlement agreement. The opinion is a powerful, and sadly, rare affirmation of the Wampanoag’s right to call the shots on their land.

The First Circuit’s opinion staunches a general degradation of tribal sovereignty in American Indian law. The Supreme Court has held that tribes have criminal jurisdiction only over their own members, which has led to impunity for non-native perpetrators and an epidemic of sexual violence in Indian country. Recent gains are under threat. Where the Obama administration settled longstanding land disputes with American Indians and supported lawsuits brought by tribes, including the Wampanoags, the current Secretary of the Interior has threatened to cut off certain federal support for tribes. And just recently, President Trump used a racist slur at a ceremony honoring Navajo veterans.

The fight over the bingo hall is not over. The Wampanoags could reconsider, as they have before. In 1986, Gladys Widdiss, then the chairman of the tribal council, told a Senate committee that the settlement agreement “will not empower our tribe to conduct high-stakes gaming.” A February 2014 referendum to quash the plan failed by just two votes. But the end of the litigation recognizes an important principle for Aquinnah: the decision is up to the tribe alone.

Duncan Pickard, a graduate of Island schools, is a lawyer currently based in Luxembourg.