Wampanoag tribe says it has federal approval to build casino on Martha’s Vineyard

The Wampanoag Tribe of Aquinnah today declared it has won federal approval to open a casino on its tribal land on Martha’s Vineyard, introducing a surprising new wrinkle to the state’s unsettled gambling industry.

The tribe pledges to now move ahead with a plan to convert an unfinished tribal community center on the island into a temporary casino, until a permanent facility can be built.

“As the People of the First Light, we are responsible for preserving the atmosphere and beauty of the Island,” said the tribe’s chairwoman, Cheryl Andrews-Maltais. “Any gaming facility we operate will blend in with the rest of the Island, and the tribe will work with local businesses to ensure the casino’s positive economic impact on our neighbors in the larger Island community.”

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

The Aquinnah are evaluating options for a potential partner in developing an island casino, said Andrews-Maltais, in a telephone interview today.

“We do have many options on the table,” she said. The tribe will go forward “as soon as possible” with the temporary facility.

“I would love to be able to set up a poker table tomorrow, but that’s not going to work,” Andrews-Maltais said. “It’s going to take several months.”

She said the tribe’s vision for a permanent casino would be a “boutique facility,” smaller than commercial gambling resorts being proposed on the Massachusetts mainland.

The Aquinnah have been in a long battle with state officials over tribal gambling rights.

Tribal gambling is approved and regulated under federal law, the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, known as IGRA. Federally recognized tribes, such as the Aquinnah, generally can host gambling as a means of economic development without a state casino license.

But Massachusetts officials have long insisted that the Aquinnah gave up their federal IGRA rights in a land settlement in the 1980s, when the tribe agreed to abide by state law on its sovereign territory.

The Aquinnah, based on the island, are a separate tribal government from the Mashpee Wampanoag, who are seeking federal approval to build a casino in Taunton. The Mashpee have a different set of legal challenges to overcome, primarily that they don’t control any sovereign Indian land. Tribal casinos can only be built on Native American reservations or land held in federal trust on a tribe’s behalf.

Under state law, a limited number of commercial casinos will be licensed through a competition controlled by the state gambling commission; the Aquinnah tribe did not apply for a state license.

The Aquinnah turned to the federal government for clarification of its rights, and on Oct. 25 received a legal analysis from Eric Shepard, acting general counsel of the National Indian Gaming Commission, the federal regulatory agency that oversees tribal gambling.

“It is my opinion that the specified lands [on the Vineyard] are Indian lands as defined by IGRA and are eligible for gaming,” Shepard wrote to the tribe, according to a copy of the 5-page letter provided by the Aquinnah.

“The tribe has consistently asserted that we have the right to game on our lands in Aquinnah,” Andrews-Maltais said. “These approvals affirm our position. We are thrilled.”

“We have continued to assert and try to explain to people the differences between federal Indian law and how it relates to us, but it seemed it was going to take a lot more convincing…so we felt it was really necessary to get those determinations through the federal system so there was absolute clarity so we can start all over again with some real negotiations with our rights well in hand,” she said.

The tribe’s initial plans are for what tribal gambling law calls a Class 2 facility, which permits games such as high-stakes bingo, poker, and some varieties of slot machines. To run a wider variety of Las Vegas-style games, such as blackjack and roulette, the tribe must negotiate with Governor Deval Patrick on an agreement known as a compact. In general, compacts provide tribes certain benefits in exchange for a share of gambling revenue.

The tribe this morning renewed a request to open negotiations with the Patrick administration, “which previously refused to negotiate with Aquinnah on the mistaken belief that the tribe had given up any rights to game,” the tribe stated.

“With the question of the eligibility of our lands qualifying under IGRA resolved, we hope that our two governments can now return to the negotiation table and work out a fair agreement under applicable federal law,’’ the tribe stated.