The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) last week removed brush it had placed to block a path opposite Clay Pit Road, that gave access to Lobsterville Beach. The tribe’s action followed a meeting August 9, between a representative of the town’s three-member board of selectmen, Aquinnah town counsel, and the tribal council.
The blocked path had threatened to become a line in the sand over which the limits of the 1983 settlement agreement that led to federal recognition for the tribe would once again be tested.
In a letter dated August 12, addressed to selectman Jim Newman, Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, tribe chairman, said: “The Tribal Council will permit the town temporary foot access across the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) Trust Lands on a designated path leading from Clay Pit Road to Vineyard Sound; and in order to facilitate this action, the Tribe’s Natural Resources Department staff will temporarily remove the brush barrier in order to clear the foot path for ease of access.”
The announcement that the path was opened followed a closed meeting on August 7 between Mr. Newman and the tribal council. On August 9, Mr. Newman, town counsel Ron Rappaport, and three members of the tribal council met at the tribe’s administration building. Mr. Rappaport offered his legal opinion that the town has a reserve easement to the path and explained how he came to that conclusion. Both meetings were closed to the public.
The tribe’s description of the reopened access as “temporary”, while the town maintains it has a legally protected right to use the path suggests that the latest development may be a strategic retreat or just a temporary pause in the battle. For now, both sides speak encouragingly about maintaining a healthy dialog in the future.
In her letter announcing the tribe’s actions, Ms. Maltais wrote, “We hope that this gesture also demonstrates our commitment to an open and cooperative government-to-government relationship with the town. We look forward to continued discussions with you regarding clarification on this and other issues in the future. We thank you again for your efforts, and the honor and integrity with which you serve the town of Aquinnah.”
The Aquinnah/Gay Head Community Association, which successfully defend the terms of the settlement agreement in 2004, announced the re-opening of the path in a newsletter alert to members. “This is a very positive development and is part of an ongoing process between the town and the tribe,” the association said.
“I am very pleased that we have made this much progress, and I hope that we can avoid complications like this in the future by sitting down and talking about issues,” Camille Rose, chairman of the board of selectmen, told The Times.
The warm dialog did not extend to the selectmen. In a telephone conversation Monday, Mr. Newman criticized Ms. Rose, albeit in oblique terms. Mr. Newman told The Times, “Process is very important in solving problems with the tribe, and you have to deal with the tribe on a government-to-government level and not in a public forum that turns into a circus.”
For her part, Ms. Rose said she disagreed with Mr. Newman’s view that discussions with the tribe were best conducted in private. “Issues need to be settled in public, not private,” she said.
Mr. Newman was not on-Island when Ms. Rose, who has staunchly defended rights of access to the path, scheduled a public meeting on July 29 to talk about the unilateral closing. The tribe was invited to the meeting, but did not attend officially, although some tribe members and even tribe officers did attend.
Mr. Newman said the tribe only learned of the meeting 24 hours before it was to take place. “I felt it hadn’t been handled properly, and I have always felt that we have to the deal with the tribe in a relationship that is government-to-government.”
Asked what the tribe meant by temporary access, Mr. Newman said, “Well, we never used the word temporary, so I am not positive what that means. I think it needs to be determined where each of the granted access ways are and marked out. We feel that this is a legitimate passageway. I have a feeling they may be waiting for maps.”
Mr. Newman said it is his view, and Mr. Rappaport’s, that the access is protected in the settlement agreement.
Going forward, Mr. Newman said he thinks the town and the tribe need to maintain an ongoing dialog “so we can deal with these matters as they arise.”
In an email received Monday, Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, tribe chairman, responded to two questions The Times posed in an email.
Asked why the tribe used the word temporary, Ms. Maltais said, “Temporary access is what the town had requested of us, to allow the rest of the summer to be enjoyed.
“We felt this would be a good interim solution, until we are able to develop a process by which we can sit down together and review our intergovernmental responsibilities and communication processes, pursuant to the Settlement Act.”
Asked if the tribe disputes the town’s view and town counsel’s opinion that the access the tribe said it would permit is in fact a right guaranteed in the settlement agreement, Ms. Maltais said, “I cannot speak for the town or the town counsel. However, I can say that the tribal council and I are committed to developing a working government-to-government relationship with the town, which respects each of our rights and responsibilities respectively.
“And, we feel the only way of accomplishing that goal is to have a real process by which our respective governments can communicate, especially when there is the potential for differing opinions on rights and responsibilities. But, since the summer is so busy for all of us, it simply makes sense to work through the issue when we all have the time to do it well.”