The state of Massachusetts and an Indian tribe whose ancestors first inhabited Martha's Vineyard are asking a federal judge to settle whether the tribe can build a casino on the island that has long been a favored vacation destination for the rich and powerful.
FILE - In this Monday, Aug. 4, 2014, file photo, the unfinished tribal community center sits on the Aquinnah Wampanoag reservation in Aquinnah, Mass., on the island of Martha's Vineyard. The state and the tribe are asking a federal judge to settle whether the tribe can turn the unfinished community center into a gambling house on the famous resort island. A hearing on the request is set for Aug. 12, 2015.
By PHILIP MARCELO, Associated Press
AQUINNAH, Mass. — The state of Massachusetts and an Indian tribe whose ancestors first inhabited Martha's Vineyard are asking a federal judge to settle whether the tribe can build a casino on the island that has long been a favored vacation destination for the rich and powerful.
The Aquinnah Wampanoags want to turn an unfinished tribal community center on the remote, western side of the island into a gambling hall filled with electronic betting machines.
They say the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act permits them to offer certain types of gambling because they are a federally-recognized tribe with jurisdiction over about 485 acres in the town of Aquinnah. They say recent legal analysis from other federal authorities support that claim.
"This court cannot properly conclude that the Commonwealth has jurisdiction over the (tribe's) lands," the tribe said in a court filing. "The court should also afford substantial deference to the thorough and well-reasoned opinions of the United State Department of the Interior and the Indian Gaming Commission that reach these same conclusions."
The Wampanoags want to offer electronic, high-stakes bingo-style games that can often resemble slot machines found in traditional casinos. They don't propose offering casino table games, like blackjack, craps and roulette.
The state counters that the tribe specifically forfeited the right to offer gambling when it reached a settlement with Massachusetts for those lands in 1983. The agreement stipulates that the tribe was subject to local and state laws in effect at the time. It was subsequently approved by state lawmakers and Congress.
"Federal legislation codifying the settlement agreement expressly applied 'those laws and regulations which prohibit or regulate the conduct of bingo or other games of chance' to the settlement land," the state said in legal briefs.
The suit was filed in December 2013; Massachusetts is joined by the town of Aquinnah and a local community association in suing the tribe. Each side has asked the judge to decide the case on the arguments rather than take it to trial, and a hearing is set for Aug. 12 in Boston.
Buddy Vanderhoop, an Aquinnah Wampanoag and popular charter fishing boat captain, says the gambling debate has also divided tribal members. Most of those living on the island are opposed to the plan while mainland members are largely supportive, he says.
The tribe has about 1,200 members. Most live on the mainland in New Bedford and other southeastern Massachusetts cities.
"We're outnumbered by the tribal members that don't live here," Vanderhoop says. "Nobody on this island wants it. It's all the members in New Bedford. They don't want it in their backyard."
Aquinnah Town Selectwoman Julianne Vanderhoop, who is Vanderhoop's sister and also a tribe member, was among those opposed when the tribe narrowly approved a vote last year to continue to develop the plan.
"It's just not a good fit for this side of town," she says, citing a lack of parking, increased traffic and other possible negative effects on the bucolic island's way of life.
Vanderhoop suggests the tribe has more pressing matters to address, such as a recent die-off of scallops that affects some 200 Aquinnah families working in that industry.
Prominent gambling boosters have been noticeably silent on the subject in recent weeks. Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, who chairs the tribe's gambling corporation, declined requests for comment, as did lawyers and a spokesman for the tribe.
Massachusetts lawmakers in 2011 allowed for up to three regional resort casinos and one slot parlor to be licensed by the state. Then-Gov. Deval Patrick also negotiated an agreement with the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe as it sought a federal land in trust status to build a casino in Taunton. But Patrick declined to do negotiate an agreement with the Aquinnah Wampanoag.
Gov. Charlie Baker and state Attorney General Maura Healey, both of whom inherited the lawsuit when they took office in January, have declined to comment.