Members of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) will elect a chairman and fill three seats on the tribal council, on Sunday, November 17. The election takes place shortly after the announcement Tuesday by current chairman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais that the tribe would move ahead to build a gaming parlor in Aquinnah and strained relationships between the town and Aquinnah public officials, two of whom are tribal members.
Tobias Vanderhoop of Aquinnah, 39, former tribal administrator, will challenge Ms. Andrews-Maltais, 55, of Edgartown, who is seeking a third three-year term
The election results will ripple well beyond the confines of tribal lands in Aquinnah, where only a small portion of the approximately 300 Martha’s Vineyard members live. Although the tribe is rooted in its ancestral lands on Martha’s Vineyard, the majority of its approximately 1,200 members live on the mainland, mostly in Southeastern Massachusetts.
Off-Island members increasingly exert more influence over tribal affairs, a political dynamic reflected in the May 2012 vote to use the tribe’s long unfinished community center for Class II gaming, opening up the prospect of a gambling parlor in the Island’s smallest town over the objection of many Island residents and the prospect of a certain legal challenge from the town.
Meanwhile, the 6,200-square-foot structure, erected in the summer of 2004 over six weeks by three squadrons of Air Force reservists as part of a civil engineering exercise, which was to include a gymnasium, kitchen facilities, and meeting space, remains unfinished and unused.
Fissures are also evident in the relationship between the tribe and the town. On October 15, Aquinnah fire chief Simon Bollin updated selectmen on his frustrated efforts to communicate with tribal leaders to address firefighting safety concerns on tribal lands, ongoing since last April. Mr. Bollin, under a tribe-town public safety agreement, serves as the tribe’s fire chief.
Mr. Bollin told The Times last week that despite three certified letters sent to tribe leadership, he had no response to his concerns about fire codes and needed facility inspections until he threatened to cancel the fire services agreement. Doing so might have jeopardized the tribe’s federal funding. He said he has yet to hear from tribal housing, a separate administrative entity.
“It’s a huge nightmare for me,” Chief Bollin said. “I don’t have the ability to protect people on that property.”
Although two of the three members of the Aquinnah board of selectmen, Beverly Wright and Spencer Booker, are members of the tribe, both selectmen confirmed that the relationship between town and tribe, and particularly with the current chairman, Ms. Andrews-Maltais, is difficult.
Ms. Wright, chairman of the selectmen and a former chairman of the tribe, was elected to the tribal council in 2012. But, the council refused to seat her, citing a conflict of interest. That council decision, Ms. Wright said, was based on her opposition to the use of the community center for gaming.
In the November 2012 general election, a total of 133 voters out of the tribe’s voting membership of slightly more than 600 voters cast votes.
Last week, prior to the announcement concerning plans to move forward with a gaming center in Aquinnah, The Times spoke to Ms. Andrews-Maltais and Mr. Vanderhoop about their candidacies, gaming, tribal stewardship of the deteriorating Mayhew Chapel and Indian burial ground, strained tribal-town relations, and an approximately $4 million operating budget almost solely dependent on federal taxpayer dollars.
Mr. Vanderhoop has served in a variety of tribal government and cultural posts. In 2008, he received a masters degree in public administration from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Until his resignation last November he worked for Ms. Andrews-Maltais as administrator for the tribe. He is currently chief administrator of the tribe’s judicial system and works for his uncle’s drywall company.
Mr. Vanderhoop said he decided to seek the tribe’s top post because there is a need for change.
“I believe our tribal government needs a different approach to the way it operates,” Mr. Vanderhoop said. “I feel that we should have more open communication with our tribal members and with the Island, and certainly a more improved relationship with the town that surrounds us. Just watching the way we have operated over time, I thought it was very important to try and make some improvements to our government.”
Mr. Vanderhoop said better communication would lead to effective partnerships and more areas of cooperation. “People should understand what we are doing and why we are doing it,” he said. “Effective leadership must include effective communication.”
On the topic of gambling in the community center, he said he would revisit the issue with the goal of providing all available information but would follow the will of the voters. Mr. Vanderhoop said he supports “an appropriate gaming initiative,” but the tribe should not focus solely on gaming and needs to be pursuing a diverse economic strategy.
As for the unfinished community center, Mr. Vanderhoop said he has heard from many members that the tribe needs a place where young and old can gather. If elected, he said, “One way or another, that building is going to be completed.”
In July 2011, the Wampanoag Tribe filed a lawsuit against the Department of the Interior Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to block the Cape Wind project. “Cape Wind will destroy our traditional cultural property, Horseshoe Shoal and the surrounding Nantucket Sound, where our tribe has flourished and continues to utilize for significant cultural and spiritual ceremonies and practices,” Bettina Washington, the tribe’s historic preservation officer, said in a press release at the time.
Closer to home, a visit last week to the Mayhew Chapel and Indian burial ground in West Tisbury revealed gravestones lost in brush and weeds, and a chapel in a sad state of disrepair.
Asked why the chapel and burial ground was left to deteriorate, Mr. Vanderhoop said, “I am embarrassed by it and saddened by it.” Mr. Vanderhoop said the tribe needs to do better.
He downplayed any split between mainland and Island members, noting that he had spent the first 18 years of his life growing up on the mainland.
“I love our tribe, and I believe that getting rid of this alleged factionalism goes to the core of what we need to do to make sure we have a path forward,” he said.
Mr. Vanderhoop said it is important to reexamine how the tribe allocates resources and work with the tribal council to set clear goals with a system of accountability and, once set, let tribal administrators do the work.
The goal, he said, needs to be self-sufficiency. Under his leadership, all voices would need to be heard. “That is the kind of leader I am,” he said.
This week, Ms. Andrews-Maltais was in Washington, D.C., to attend
the White House Tribal Nations Conference at the Department of the Interior, one of many conferences she has attended representing the interests of the Wampanoag Tribe.
Ms. Andrews-Maltais said she is running for reelection because there is still a lot of work left to be done. Much of her first term, she said, was getting the tribe’s house in order, bringing audits up to date and attending to neglected administrative responsibilities.
“My first term, I was taken aback by the amount of stuff that needed to be reported on,” she said.
Highlighting one of her second term accomplishments, she points to an agreement with Citgo that provided heating assistance for tribal members living in the Northeast. And she described ways in which she has made health clinics and other programs more accessible to the general membership.
“Looking back, being able to have more people feel like they are part of the tribe and part of the community itself, on a more expanded basis, is one of my favorite accomplishments,” she said.
She points to the creation of a separate corporate tribal business board. “Now we are going to be able to go out and seek partnerships and seek new business opportunities,” she said. She says the tribe has learned from past business ventures and is looking to the future.
As to the upkeep of the Mayhew Chapel and burial ground, she said young members of the tribe had cleaned up the chapel in the spring and the natural resources department periodically maintains the grounds.
Told that the ceiling was falling in and grave sites were overgrown, a situation not much changed from one year ago when The Times last reported on it, Ms. Andrews-Maltais cited recent storms and the nature of vegetation to grow quickly.
She said the cultural and historic commission is responsible for the chapel and grounds. “The tribal chairperson doesn’t do all these things personally,” she said.
Ms. Andrews-Maltais disputed the fire chief’s view that the tribe had been uncooperative or nonresponsive.
“That’s simply not true,” she said. “When we had our tribe town meeting for public safety, Chief Bollin reiterated that he had some concerns, at which point the director of office management who is designated to interact with the town, the chief of police, and the fire chief responded in writing to the town.”
She said the tribe did respond and generally speaking had always been able to work with the town. She pointed to two ambulances given to Tri-town Ambulance Service, the recent donation of two Lucas automated chest compression system units and shared use of public safety resources, including a boat.
Ms. Andrews-Maltais said the council made the decision that a conflict existed for Ms. Wright, and it was Ms. Wright’s choice to make — the council or board of selectmen.
In November, Ms. Andrews-Maltais’s sister, Naomi Carney, a member of the tribal council and the gaming corporation, was elected to the New Bedford City Council. Ms. Andrews-Maltais said it is up the tribal council to decide if a conflict exists, but she drew a distinction between a town with a “historic hostility” to the tribe and New Bedford.
On the topic of the community center, Ms. Andrews-Maltais said, “It is still in the process of being completed.”
She attributed the delay to the timing and size of grants and said that following work completed last year and the vote to use the building, there was the question of whether the tribe would need to “repurpose” the building.
Asked why, if Island congregants could erect churches and the Agricultural Society could with community support build a barn, the tribe could not finish its community center with or without grants, Ms. Andrews-Maltais said the tribe was not large and its members without significant personal resources. “We don’t really have enough bodies to do all the work that the other types of government entities or nonprofits have,” she said.
She said the tribe continues to move along on the gaming effort on both the Aquinnah and mainland front. “We know that lot of people are concerned, thinking that there’s going to be a big monstrosity or anything else, but clearly we know that we need to do whatever we do [on-Island] modestly and consistent with what the market will yield. We’re still going to pursue our gaming initiatives on the mainland.”
Ms. Andrews-Maltais said the tribe seldom gets credit for the benefits it brings to the Island community. “I think its important that our community, particularly our tribal community, but the community at large, knows that we’re working to not only fight for our rights but also to develop and identify economic opportunities that will benefit not only tribal members but everybody on the Island. We are a good partner and a good steward as far as the community, which has been demonstrated by our donations.”
Reminded those donations are in fact taxpayer dollars, Ms. Andrews-Maltais said it is only through the tribe’s efforts that the Island community reaps these benefits.