In an assertion of its sovereignty, the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) has taken preliminary steps to build its own public safety facility on tribal land and expand its emergency services operations. The tribe has approved an application for federal grant money and agreed to commit substantial funds to the project — even as the casino development remains on hold.

At a tribal council meeting on Jan. 4, council leaders voted unanimously to submit an application to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for a community development block grant to fund the public safety building, according to minutes from the meeting. It is not known how much money the tribe has applied for, but the application allows the tribal council to commit up to $300,000 in eligible tribal funds as a match.

The Aquinnah Wamponoag is a sovereign, federally recognized tribe that manages approximately 500 acres of land and 27 housing units in Aquinnah. The town and tribe have had an increasingly fraught relationship since the tribe announced plans to construct a class II gaming facility in the tiny town, raising numerous concerns, including around public safety.

Although the tribe has a handful of employees with public safety training, including one full-time ranger who works under natural resources director Bret Stearns, it currently relies on the town for public safety and emergency response, including police, fire and Tri-Town ambulance department.

Tribal chairman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais did not immediately respond to telephone and email requests from the Gazette for comment this week. The Gazette has filed a Freedom of Information Act request with HUD seeking information about the grant application.

According to an account in the most recent edition of the tribal newsletter Toad Rock Times, tribal leadership is considering financing parts of the project through the Department of Interior/Indian Affairs section 105 leasing program. The program is part of the Indian self-determination act and allows the federal government to enter into a lease with a tribal organization for buildings that house administration or delivery of services.

In the February newsletter, Ms. Andrews-Maltais expressed enthusiasm for the proposal. She said the prospect of a tribal public safety building has been a long time in the making, and is finally coming to fruition.

“The council had decided years ago to develop our own public safety department and began the planning of a building to house the team,” Ms. Andrews-Maltais wrote in part. “Last year we resumed in earnest our efforts to bring that plan back. We reviewed and redesigned the building and we held our public hearing regarding the new public safety building last month. The building will host our own tribal law enforcement, fire and emergency equipment and personnel, as well as host other relevant functions and personnel. This newly initiated . . . leasing program has great potential to really help tribes and assist us in building out our government administration campus.”

Mr. Stearns, who oversees the tribe’s law enforcement arm, said that the building would house the tribe’s ranger program and anything that grew out of it, including potentially a pumper fire truck. In order to qualify for advanced certifications, the ranger program needs to be housed in its own structure, he said. Tribal administration is housed in a single building off Black Brook Road.

“Right now we are running a ranger program out of an administrative building,” Mr. Stearns said. “This is a growth management issue. We have a program that has to go somewhere.”

The planned new building would be located on a site adjacent to the current administrative building, Mr. Stearns said. He declined to say whether expansion of the tribe’s emergency services relates to the casino development, referring those questions to Ms. Andrews-Maltais. But he said the idea of an independent tribal public safety building dates back years.

“I can tell you that this expansion is not a new concept to us,” Mr. Stearns said. “It had been discussed a long time ago. Many years ago we had been discussing how we could better improve the way that we physically lay out the staff so that we could be better prepared for the future. This in my mind is part of the natural growth.”

The public safety relationship between the tribe and town has a long and complicated history. The two governments currently rely on a memorandum of understanding for shared public safety services that dates to 2011. A copy of the agreement provided by the town says Aquinnah police have the jurisdiction and authority to enforce all town and state laws while on tribal lands, and are required to routinely patrol tribal lands and respond to incidents.

A separate 2011 document outlines standards of procedure between the town public safety departments and tribal rangers. Among other things it states that the town will provide policing services in exchange for access to certain tribal equipment and resources.

“The [tribe] and police enter into these [standards of procedure] for the purpose of working together as respectful sovereign governments to provide for the safety and welfare of persons on tribal lands,” the agreement says in part. “The police shall make officers available to conduct arrests, assist with investigations, enforce motor vehicle laws, serve warrants and court orders, and register sex offenders on tribal lands . . . the [tribe] shall provide its finger/palm print equipment and other resources in exchange for these police services.”

Town reports from the past four years show that Aquinnah police have responded to an average of 29 incidents on tribal lands since 2016.

The agreement also states that the Tri-Town ambulance will respond to EMS calls on tribal lands, and that the Aquinnah fire department will respond to fire incidents. Aquinnah police chief Randhi Belain said the tribe also pays the town a fee in lieu of taxes for services, although he did not know the exact amount of the fee, and it is not specified in the agreement.

In recent years, as town-tribe relations have grown tense in the shadow of the casino development, the public safety agreement has lain dormant. It has not been renewed, and repeated attempts to bring the agreement up to date have collapsed amid legal disputes around the casino project.

Despite all that, both Mr. Stearns and Mr. Belain both said the relationship remains cordial, and that they will continue to honor the agreement and assist in public safety issues, often sharing resources like boats and vehicles.

Meanwhile, construction on the proposed 10,000-square-foot bingo hall remains at a standstill, as court battles continue. Tribal attorneys are currently before the U.S. Court of Appeals for a second time in a dispute over whether state and local building permits will be required. Chief Belain said he had heard about the tribe’s interest in building a public safety facility, but had not spoken directly with tribal leadership about it. He said he attended the public hearing on the proposal referenced by Ms. Andrews-Maltais in the newsletter, but left when it appeared that no one else was present. “Is this connected to the proposed casino? We don’t know,” said Mr. Belain, who is also a tribal member. “We haven’t talked about it. Obviously there’s a reason for it. This all started because we wanted to talk about [the agreement], but it’s all gone sideways with the legal stuff.”

While he emphasized the town’s strong relationship with Mr. Stearns and tribal rangers, the chief said higher-level communication between the town and tribe has been at a standstill for years.

“I still work well with Bret, as far as day to day activity things,” Chief Belain said. “But as far as anything else, the town and tribe have not met to discuss anything public safety related for quite a while. At least a year, if not more.”

He said if the casino project is completed, the town would likely need to sign a new public safety agreement with the tribe. The casino would represent a major commercial development in the town of less than 400 registered voters, and would necessitate hiring at least one more officer, he said. The department currently has three full-time staff members.

Both Mr. Stearns and Mr. Belain said the proposed public safety building would not change their ability to work in tandem. The tribe has a long history of assisting towns through partnerships. It donated an ambulance to Aquinnah in the early 2000s, Mr. Stearns said, and has since donated ambulances to West Tisbury, among other towns.

He too said if a new public safety building goes up, the partnership would not change.

“It would be a benefit to all,” Mr. Stearns said. “Does the tribe desire to have an independent enforcement arm? Absolutely. Does that mean that we won’t continue to work together? Absolutely not.”