By: George Brennan
The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) has made no decision on whether to renovate its unfinished community center into a gambling facility and is keeping its options open, the tribe’s new chairman said.
Eyes have been on the tribe and its plans for a possible island casino since November, when former Chairwoman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais shared an opinion the tribe received from the National Indian Gaming Commission that the tribe was within its rights to open a high-stakes bingo facility on tribal lands.
Days later Andrews-Maltais was ousted in a tribal election by Tobias Vanderhoop, who told the Times he is personally opposed to a casino at tribal headquarters in Aquinnah but would let the membership decide how to proceed.
Vanderhoop, who took over as tribal council chairman Jan. 4, presided over his first monthly meeting of the tribal membership last week. At that meeting, the tribe’s casino options were discussed, but no decisions were made, Vanderhoop said in an email to the Times.
“The objective of the meeting was to present information to educate our people about the work of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Gaming Corporation,” Vanderhoop wrote. “All gaming options remain on the table for the Aquinnah Wampanoag people at this time and we will continue to have informational sessions for our tribal membership to keep them fully informed as our efforts progress.”
The tribe has been trying to negotiate a compact with Gov. Deval Patrick for an off-island casino, similar to the deal that’s been worked out between the state and the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, but the Aquinnah and the state are at odds.
The tribe maintains it has the same rights as the state’s other federally recognized tribe, the Mashpee Wampanoag, and is buoyed by the recent legal opinion from the National Indian Gaming Commission. In that opinion, Eric Shepard, acting general counsel for the commission, wrote that the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act trumps land settlements.
“I have reviewed your request and it is my opinion that the specified lands are Indian lands as defined by IGRA and are eligible for gaming,” Shepard wrote in a letter to the tribe dated Oct. 23.
State officials contend the tribe ceded any rights in a 1987 land settlement agreement in which the tribe agreed to abide by state laws and local bylaws.
In December, Patrick sued the Aquinnah tribe in state court in an attempt to block its plans for a Vineyard casino.
In late December, tribe lawyers had the case moved to U.S. District Court in Boston, saying the legal questions raised were better suited for federal court.
Last week, the state filed a separate motion seeking to have the case sent back to the state court. Lawyers for the state argued that the questions to be decided have to do with the land agreement reached between the tribe and state, not federal Indian laws.
Tribe lawyers have been given until Feb. 24 to counter the state’s legal argument.