Tribal referendum fails to defeat proposed Aquinnah casino

By: George Brennan

A referendum before the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) to kill an island casino failed to get the necessary two-thirds majority during a recent vote, a tribe member confirmed today.

The referendum sought to overturn an earlier vote by the membership to open a small gambling facility in the tribe’s unfinished community center on tribal lands in Aquinnah.

“It failed by three votes,” said Beverly Wright, chairman of the town’s Board of Selectmen and a tribe member.

According to the tribe’s constitution, the question can’t be brought before tribe members for another year, Wright said. “I don’t know of anyone in the town who is in favor of the facility being built in Aquinnah,” she said.

Wright supports the tribe’s rights to a casino under the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, but opposes a casino on Martha’s Vineyard, she said.

Tribe leaders did not immediately return calls or emails Tuesday morning, but Tobias Vanderhoop, chairman of the tribal council, told the Vineyard Gazette that the referendum did not change two previous votes of the tribal membership. “At this point, the previous actions remain enforced and the project will move forward,” Vanderhoop is quoted as saying by the island newspaper.

The tribe contends it has federal rights to a casino on tribal lands under IGRA, which is disputed by Gov. Deval Patrick. The dispute is currently being argued in legal briefs in U.S. District Court in Boston.

Patrick filed suit with a single justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court seeking to block an island casino, but tribe attorneys recently had the case moved to federal court. In the latest brief filed Monday, tribe attorneys seek to have the case remain in federal court where the question of whether IGRA trumps the tribe’s land settlement is best answered, according to court documents.

The tribe attorneys cite two opinions from federal agencies within the past year that the tribe is authorized to provide gambling on tribal lands, records show.

The ongoing case, as well as the tribe’s vow to open an island casino remains a wild card in the ongoing discussion of licensing commercial casinos in the Bay State.

On Tuesday, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission began deliberations that are expected to culminate in issuing the state’s first license for a slot parlor on Friday. Commissioner James McHugh briefly mentioned the Aquinnah proposal, though he acknowledged not knowing much about it.

In early deliberations over site design, slot parlors proposed in Leominster and Plainville are ahead of a slot parlor proposed in Raynham, which was criticized by McHugh for lack of details.

The state’s other federally-recognized tribe, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, has an approved a compact with Patrick for a $500 million Taunton casino. The Mashpee tribe is awaiting separate approval of its land application with the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.