Members of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) will gather in the tribe's ancestral home Sunday for a general membership meeting and to elect a tribal chairman. The election comes at an important juncture.
Gov. Deval Patrick's willingness to support the development of as many as three casinos in Massachusetts has unleashed powerful economic and political forces surrounding the gaming issue. Against that backdrop, the tribe last month publicly jumped back into the casino fray.
The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (WTGH), one of two federally recognized tribes in the state, would have an advantage in the licensing process under the formula favored by Governor Patrick.
At the local level, the tribe in January signed a memorandum of understanding with the town of Aquinnah that created a joint land use permitting process that is intended to avoid future court battles. The memorandum was an outgrowth of a long legal battle over the extent to which the tribe must comply with town permitting that ended at the state Supreme Judicial Court, which ruled against the tribe. The memorandum has yet to face its first test.
On Sunday, Cheryl Andrews-Maltais of Edgartown will challenge incumbent Donald Widdiss for a three-year term as chairman of the tribe. The election battle takes place against a backdrop of apathy and disengagement on the part of the approximately 1,100 members of the tribe.
In recent years, the tribe has struggled to reach a quorum at general membership meetings - one in three years. Few tribal members attended a candidates' night in October.
In conversations with The Times Tuesday, Mr. Widdiss and Ms. Andrews-Maltais discussed the election and some of the paramount issues.
Mr. Widdiss was first elected chairman in 1987, soon after the tribe gained federal recognition. Today, he is seeking a fourth term as chairman, and his second consecutive term after his 2004 victory over Beverly Wright - the longtime leader who followed Mr. Widdiss's first term - by a vote of 132-105. When he was elected in 2004, Mr. Widdiss said it was time for a change and that he would use his personal relationships with townspeople to help ease some of the tensions and mistrust that had developed over the years.
Mr. Widdiss stepped into the forefront of the Tribe's renewed effort to develop a casino at a Boston press conference in October when he announced that the Tribe had formed a partnership with the Seneca Nation of Indians of New York to explore opportunities in Massachusetts to build a casino.
Mr. Widdiss said it is important that political and economic leaders remain confident that the Tribe has the ability to develop a casino, particularly in light of previous failed efforts. The agreement with the Seneca Nation boosts WTGH prospects, he said, adding that his working relationships would keep that effort moving forward.
Mr. Widdiss said the Tribe is also developing a tribally chartered corporation to pursue economic development unrelated to gaming. "We've recognized the need to separate tribal government from business development decision making," he said.
Asked to describe a significant accomplishment of his term, Mr. Widdiss pointed to the memorandum of understanding that grew out of a lawsuit he said he inherited. He said the Tribe and the town now have a mechanism for avoiding future lawsuits and a better working relationship that has led to cooperation on a number of levels.
Mr. Widdiss said membership apathy remains a concern, but there appear to be no easy answers regarding the cause or the solution. "Everybody has a different perception about what the issues are," he said.
If re-elected, Mr. Widdiss said he would work to strengthen the role of the chairperson, develop a tribal corporation for economic development, pursue gaming development, and maintain a good working relationship with other tribes.
Ms. Andrews-Maltais, WTGH historic preservation officer, previously served one term on the tribal council. In the weeks leading up to Sunday's election she has mounted a strenuous campaign, meeting and speaking with tribal voters across the Vineyard and on the mainland.
Ms. Andrews-Maltais said she has been an active participant in the Wampanoag's political and cultural life. In her professional capacity she works closely with federal and state agencies and tribes across the country on Native-American cultural affairs.
Ms. Andrews-Maltais said she decided to challenge Mr. Widdiss to correct what she describes as a leadership that has become distanced and detached from the membership. "As a tribal government and tribal administration we can simply do better," she said.
Ms. Andrews-Maltais is critical of the atmosphere that she said permeates tribal government and a lack of communication. She said the WTGH membership learned of the agreement with the Seneca Nation from news reports. "That is blatantly unfair to the membership," she said, adding that communication and outreach begins at the top with the chairperson. She said she would make that effort.
Ms. Andrews-Maltais said the argument that a change would jeopardize WTGH gaming efforts is not realistic. She said Mr. Widdiss is only one member of the Tribe's corporate body formed to pursue gaming.
Ms. Andrews-Maltais said that the Tribe's partners, whoever they may be, are investors first. "If their investment is viable and they are going to get a return on that investment, that is all that matters," she said.
Ms. Maltais said the WTGH-town agreement exists on paper but has not resulted in closer working relationships. As chairperson she would try to attend town meetings to represent the Tribe's interests.
If elected, Ms. Maltais said she would work to conclude a gaming deal, energize the general membership, keep them better informed, and devote more resources to youth programs intended to develop an understanding and appreciation for Wampanoag culture and history. "Our young people are the future of this Tribe," she said.
According to the WTGH constitution, the chairperson shall: preside over all meetings of the Tribal Council and general tribal membership meetings; report annually to the tribal membership as to the state of the tribe; be responsible for the general supervision of all tribal employees; implement and carry out all directives and policies of the Tribal Council; ensure that the Tribal Council is fully informed about all aspects of tribal business and programs; and seek guidance from the Tribal Council as to future policy and conduct of tribal business and programs.
The chairperson also supervises a tribal budget that includes millions in Federal assistance made up primarily of annual self-governance grants from the Department of the Interior.
Fedspending.org, a nonprofit organization that tracks government spending and monitors the activities of the White House Office of Management and Budget, reported that, according to the most recent available government data, in fiscal year (FY) 2006 the Wampanoag Tribe received a total of $1,618,108 in Federal assistance.
The Tribe received a total of $3,755,638 in Federal funds, including $2,257,410 in self-governance grants in fiscal year 2005.