Aquinnah election expected to shift Wampanoag-town relationship

Aquinnah election expected to shift Wampanoag-town relationship

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Aquinnah voters went to the polls on May 11 and chose former Wampanoag Tribe chairman Beverly Wright to take a seat on the three-member board of selectmen. The vote was 124-95, to unseat incumbent selectman Camille Rose.

Ms. Wright joins a board that includes Jim Newman and Spencer Booker. Mr. Booker is also a member of the Wampanoag Tribe.

In comments to The Times, Cheryl Andrews Maltais, chairman of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) said the tribe made a concerted effort to get out the vote. Ms. Maltais also downplayed the fact that tribal members now compose a majority of the board and said she expects the election of Ms. Wright will usher in a new spirit of cooperation between the town and tribe.

Ms. Wright was chairman of the Wampanoag Tribe for five terms, from 1992 to 2004. She is currently an elected member of the tribal council.

“I am hopeful that having someone on the board of selectmen who is aware of the tribe’s rights and sovereignty will help to clarify the perspective of the tribal government, and respect the rights of the tribe as well as the town,” Ms. Maltais said.

Ms. Maltais said that the tribe and town had made significant strides in their efforts to work collaboratively. She pointed to recent town-tribe agreements, and donations of tribal staff time, funds, and equipment to the town, as evidence of that commitment.

“So when you have a person, or people, who understand, support, and respect the fact that the tribe and tribal lands, while small and literally surrounded by the town’s lands, have certain rights and specific responsibilities relative to the Federal Government, it should make our job from both perspectives easier,” she said.

Ms. Maltais said she understands that Ms. Wright would be presented with a conflict due to her dual roles as town selectman and tribal council member. She said the resolution of the conflict would be dependent upon the specific codes of ethics and conduct governing each role “and most importantly, the integrity of the individual to recognize or respect the decisions of their respective boards to accept when they should recuse themselves from those specific discussions and votes where the issue of conflict is raised.”

Ms. Maltais dismissed the notion that a significant political shift had occurred. “We also must not forget that it wasn’t that long ago that the town’s board of selectmen and most boards and committees were made up exclusively, or an overwhelming majority, of tribal members,” she said.

Ms. Maltais said that not so long ago tribal members were the majority of year-round residents. “And while the town’s population and diversification has grown exponentially, it is still and always will be our aboriginal homeland for well over ten thousand years. Our ancestors lived, died, and are buried here in the earth beneath our feet and footsteps. So having the ability to have a greater voice in the actions and activities that will have a direct effect on our people and our homelands is very important to us.”

Ms. Maltais said that while much of the emphasis has focused on town-tribe issues, the town faces fundamental issues that include taxes, regionalization, land and environmental issues, affordable housing, energy issues, zoning, and permitting issues.

Ms. Maltais said that while the tribe and town will probably always face issues that require both sides to sit down and negotiate, there will always be ways to cooperate irrespective of where they originate or who is involved.

“As long as all parties are interested in finding fair and equitable agreements and resolutions, respectful of the sovereignty of each government, that’s all that should really matter,” she said.

How the election of Ms. Wright will affect a town where longstanding personal and family relationships often flavor the political brew cannot be forecast. But the strained relationship between Ms. Rose and Ms. Maltais was no secret.

Ms. Rose took a tough approach to tribal-town issues and spoke her mind when she staked out a position. She was also a staunch defender of the terms of the settlement agreement and subsequent court decision that reaffirmed it.

The tribe, the town, the state, and the Gay Head Taxpayers Association, since renamed the Aquinnah/Gay Head Community Association Inc., signed the 1983 settlement agreement that led to federal recognition of the Wampanoag tribe.

It specifically provides that the settlement lands shall be subject to all federal, state, and local laws, including town zoning laws, state and federal conservation laws, and the regulation of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission.

The ground for a legal test of the settlement act was set when the tribe constructed a small wooden shed and pier on tribal lands on the shore of Menemsha Pond without town permits in the winter of 2001.

The town initially went to court to defend the settlement act. When a Dukes County Superior Court judge found for the tribe, the board of selectmen, which included Mr. Newman, decided not to go forward and defend the settlement act on appeal.

That job was left to the AGHCA joined by the state attorney general and the Benton Family trust, abutters to the property in question.

In December 2004, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court reaffirmed the settlement agreement and found for the town.

Ms. Rose had sought a third term. “Thanks to all who voted for me,” Ms. Rose said in comments to The Times following the election. “I hope that the progress we have made in efficient town government will continue.”

A total of 225 voters cast votes in the town election. Of the town’s 398 registered voters, a significant number cast absentee ballots, town clerk Carolyn Feltz said.

There were no other contests on the election ballot. Running unopposed were: library trustee Jean Lince; planning board members Peter Temple and Jed Smith; board of health member Sarah Saltonstall; assessor Michael Stutz; and the town clerk, Ms. Feltz.