Nobody wants to see a gambling facility open in Aquinnah, and that includes a large segment of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah).
That’s why in the wake of Monday’s U.S. Supreme Court decision not to review a case brought by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the Town of Aquinnah, and the Aquinnah Gay Head Community Association attempting to block an Island casino, the town, state, and community group should begin mending fences and work with the tribe to find an alternative that makes sense.
In 2011, when the state legalized expanded gambling, which created a short window for a federally recognized tribe to seek a casino in southeastern Massachusetts, Aquinnah tribe leaders moved quickly to be a part of the competitive field.
Working with an investor, they secured purchase agreements on 500 acres on the Freetown/Lakeville line, and set about to negotiate a compact with then-Gov. Deval Patrick.
Almost immediately, the Patrick administration said it would not negotiate, citing the 1983 land agreement reached between the tribe, the town, and the state that was codified by Congress in 1987. In that agreement, the tribe agreed to follow local zoning laws and to prohibit games of chance on tribal lands.
Problem is, that same Congress, a year later, approved the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) of 1988. In that act, Congress could have clearly stated that it wanted to restrict the Aquinnah tribe’s right to offer gambling because of its land settlement agreement, but it didn’t.
Gov. Patrick’s position never really made sense. It set up two classes of tribes in the Bay State. He openly courted and negotiated with the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, a tribe whose land issues were unsettled and remain so to this day, and he turned away the Aquinnah Wampanoag, even though the tribe cooperated with the state to settle its land claims decades earlier, and was looking to operate an off-Island casino on newly acquired lands. It really made no sense because a previous Massachusetts governor had negotiated a compact with the Aquinnah Wampanoag for an off-Island casino, only to see it fail to win approval in the state legislature because the state did not yet have an appetite for legalized gambling.
Rebuffed by Gov. Patrick, the tribe began working on a plan that didn’t require state approval. Under IGRA, a federally recognized tribe in a state where gambling is legal can offer Class II casinos — electronic bingo that has the look and feel of slot machines.
In November 2013, the Aquinnah tribe, with a fresh legal opinion from the National Indian Gaming Commission that its Vineyard lands qualified for gambling, revealed plans to host a gambling facility in its then-unfinished community center.
A month later, Gov. Patrick sued in state court, alleging breach of contract, citing the land settlement agreement. The tribe successfully had the case moved to federal court, and the protracted legal battle was underway.
The state won at the district court level, but the fight wasn’t over. The Aquinnah tribe appealed to the First Circuit, and last April that court sided with the tribe that IGRA superseded the land deal.
In a last-ditch effort to overturn that ruling, the town and community association, riding piggyback on state Attorney General Maura Healey, asked the Supreme Court to review the case and intervene.
They faced terrible odds, even worse than the odds that gamblers see when they stuff quarters into a slot machine. So it should come as no surprise that the Supreme Court rejected the case on Monday.
In court documents, the tribe has said it could generate about $4.5 million from 300 electronic bingo machines at its site in Aquinnah. That’s a modest take for casinos that generate hundreds of millions in revenue. But for a small tribe that has few sources of revenue beyond federal grants, it would be a meaningful take, and would go a long way toward funding housing, education, and elder care.
But at what cost? What would it mean for Island roads and other infrastructure? What would it mean for summer traffic that’s already moving at a snail’s pace across the Island?
It may be too late for the tribe to do something off-Island, but with the southeastern Massachusetts project proposed by the Mashpee Wampanoag in a state of flux that doesn’t show any signs of ending soon, the opportunity should at least be explored.
In her first public comments, tribal council chairwoman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais has said she would like to put the legal issues behind the tribe and open up a dialogue with the town and state.
The ball’s in your court, Governor Baker. What do you say?