The sovereign Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) faces several significant challenges. Its attenuated and, from this vantage point, misguided economic focus on gaming as the dreamed of catapult to financial success for its membership of roughly 1,200 has seen the odds against rise precipitously. Division within its ranks between longtime Aquinnah/Gay Head resident tribe members and members who live off-Island and may now have greater influence over tribe decisions means that broadly supported goals and actions may be compromised.
But, what is perhaps most important and promises to become more arduous than it was, even during the 1970s and 80s, is the tribe’s neighborly relationship with its fellow Aquinnah residents, the Aquinnah town government, the other five Island towns, and Islanders generally.
The report in The Times on August 30, about the tribe’s neglect of its tiny, simple, and lovely Christiantown chapel (“Tribe’s historic Mayhew Chapel shows signs of neglect”) is the latest example of tribe behavior that mystifies its Island neighbors and undermines its organizational credibility. The string of disappointments, each similar in some ways to the failure of the tribe to protect the chapel, is significant and uninspiring. A sovereign government that proclaims itself an historic steward of the land and whose annual support, in federal and grant dollars, rises beyond $2 million, ought to do better.
In 2008, as Chilmark sought to develop its Middle Line Road affordable housing project, the tribe pressed for studies of the site to ensure that early Wampanoag artifacts were not disturbed or abused. The tribe’s stewardship instinct added nearly $40,000 to the project’s costs, but no archaeological fruits. In 2009, it was the Sengekontacket dredging project. There the price tag was nearly $25,000. No treasures found. Then the tribe began opposition to the Cape Wind industrial turbine farm at Horseshoe Shoals. The Wampanoag opposition attracted federal money by way of mitigation, so that, like the Dukes County Fisherman’s Association, a deal left the stewardship of Nantucket Sound to the Cape Wind developer.
There is the community center built on the Gay Head tribe’s land. Air Force reservists, citizen soldiers really, built that building in 2004, paid for with federal dollars. When the shell had been completed and the Air Force builders left, the tribe did nothing further to complete the building. Now, it may become a gambling venue, if tribe ambitions to build a full-scale casino on the mainland remain thwarted.
Or, consider the failed effort to cultivate oysters in Menemsha Pond. In 2002, operating as the Wampanoag Aquinnah Shellfish Hatchery Inc., the tribe built a shellfish hatchery and anchored rafts of floating black plastic mesh grow bags in Menemsha Pond. Before it could compel the tribe to clean up the mess along the pond shores after the oyster project had collapsed, the town had lost $32,000 in real estate tax revenue, forgiven riparian property owners whose shores had become dumps for the oyster-culture apparatus.
This is a record of mismanagement, to be sure, but it is more importantly the record of bad neighbors whose proud traditions demand that they can and should do better.