Editorial: Aquinnah, in the gamblers’ sights

Editorial: Aquinnah, in the gamblers’ sights

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The future of gambling in Massachusetts, and particularly in the Southeastern part of the state, lacks even modest clarity. Competing possible locations for three full-fledged casinos, competing applicants for gambling licenses, and competition among Indian tribes for one license that, under Massachusetts law, may be reserved for an Indian enterprise, plus accumulating litigation and aspiring litigants, all complicate the decision process mercilessly. Not that this page yearns for a clear road ahead for gambling in Massachusetts. If the process never ends, it will be too soon.

Then there is the near certainty that if one or the other of the Wampanoag factions — in Aquinnah or Mashpee — is ultimately unsuccessful in its hunt for a casino license, each will make a play for a more limited gambling operation on Indian lands they already control. For Vineyarders, that means a site in Aquinnah.

Earlier this month, a federal judge denied a request by the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) to intervene as a defendant in a suit brought by KG Urban, a private casino developer that would build a casino in New Bedford. He also denied a similar request by the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe and rejected motions to intervene that the town of Aquinnah and the Aquinnah/Gay Head Community Association Inc. (AGHCA) advanced. The court found that the litigation was not ripe for these intervenors. In part, as it applied to the Aquinnah Wampanoags, the judge held that “the Aquinnah’s claimed interest in the Gaming Act is contingent upon whether or not it waived its right to conduct gaming on Aquinnah lands under the 1985 settlement agreement. The Commonwealth and putative conditional intervenors [in the Urban suit] argue that the Aquinnah did just that. Permitting the Aquinnah to intervene would eventually required adjudication of its rights under that settlement agreement and would involve evidence and legal argument wholly unrelated to the constitutionality of the Gaming Act. Undertaking that inquiry threatens to delay substantially [the Urban] litigation and to prolong the alleged irreparable injury and prejudice of [Urban].”

So, if as appears to be the case, the Aquinnah tribe has made little headway in its efforts to mount a campaign for a casino license on a mainland site taken into trust on the tribe’s behalf by the federal government, the focus of the Aquinnah tribe’s attention is very likely to turn before long to a campaign for gambling in Aquinnah.

Wampanoag Tribe chairman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais underscores this view in comments emailed to The Times in response to the federal court ruling.

“We are understandably disappointed with the decision,” Ms. Andrews-Maltais wrote. “The Aquinnah Tribe currently has land that qualifies under IGRA (Indian Gaming Regulatory Act), and under the First Circuit’s decision that land justifies the state’s special treatment of Indian tribes. We disagree that the state, who refuses to accept our tribe’s legal right under IGRA to offer gaming on our existing trust land, can adequately represent our interest in this matter. We will be consulting with our legal team on our next steps, and we will continue to vigorously pursue the tribe’s rights under IGRA and the Massachusetts Gaming Act.”

State-licensed gambling, a deplorable undertaking by the Commonwealth, is doubly so when contemplated as a fixture on the Indian lands of Aquinnah. That is why the 1985 settlement act, which paved the way for Congressional recognition of the tribe, and which was joined by the tribe, the town, the state, and what was the non-resident taxpayers association, subjected tribe activities on those lands to town, Island, and state zoning and other development regulations. Whether that agreement’s terms will survive the legal fight that is almost certain to come is a question of profound importance to the future of Martha’s Vineyard.