Tribe says trump card is an Island casino

As Massachusetts lawmakers prepare to take action on legislation that would usher in casino gambling, and as backers of competing gambling proposals engage in fierce behind-the-scenes politicking for advantage, the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) played what it considers a trump card.

At a state house press conference Tuesday, Naomi Carney, Aquinnah Wampanoag gaming corporation chairman, and Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, the tribe’s chairman, said they would construct a gaming facility on their 450 acres on Martha’s Vineyard if the tribe did not receive a state gambling license under the proposed law.

The tribe leaders made their comments as the state Senate held a public hearing on a bill that would allow three resort casinos segregated by region — eastern, southeastern, and western Massachusetts.

Unlike a House bill approved earlier, the draft Senate bill does not authorize slot machines at the state’s two horse tracks and two former dog tracks. The Senate draft calls for two casino licenses to be bid competitively with the third designated for a qualified Native American tribe.

The Aquinnah Wampanoag are locked in competition with the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, which has moved aggressively to position itself to cash in on a casino and is considered the favorite by pundits.

Federal law requires states that allow gaming to negotiate gaming agreements with federally recognized tribes and gives broad rights to those tribes to construct gambling facilities on lands held “in trust” for those tribes by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Unlike the Mashpee tribe, the Aquinnah tribe owns land held in trust.

The suggestion of a casino on Martha’s Vineyard generated headlines but appeared to have little effect on the gaming debate.

Gregory Bialecki, the top economic development aide to Governor Deval Patrick, told the State House News Service Tuesday the administration does not believe the Aquinnah tribe could open a casino after the three casinos licensed under the Senate plan.

“That is not a significant concern. We don’t feel that way, and of equal importance, we don’t see that any of the potential proponents and participants in the market are worried about that either,” he told the News Service. “So, in other words, we don’t have any reason to think that people would undervalue, lower their bid, or so forth, under a concern that there is going to be yet another facility.”

In a telephone call yesterday, Camille Rose, Aquinnah selectman and a veteran member of the town planning board, said the prospect of a casino on the Island is just an empty threat.

Ms. Rose said much of the tribe’s undeveloped and available property is protected because it is sensitive conservation land subject to restrictions. She said construction, parking, and sewerage issues alone would be significant.

“When you think of the infrastructure you would need, it’s absurd,” Ms. Rose said.

“I think everybody on the Island understands that it would be an impossibility, but they don’t know in Boston that it’s just not doable here, there is just no place,” she said. “There isn’t even a piece of land in town that you could buy that would be large enough.”

The Aquinnah tribe’s 1987 settlement agreement and a Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) decision in 2005 that upheld the basic tenets of that agreement have figured large in the casino discussion, and the notion that because the Aquinnah tribe has land in trust it has an advantage.

The 1983 settlement agreement that led to federal recognition of the Wampanoags, was signed by the tribe, the Gay Head Taxpayers Association (since renamed the Aquinnah/Gay Head Community Association Inc.), the town, and the state. It specifically provides that the settlement lands shall be subject to all federal, state, and local laws, including town zoning laws, state and federal conservation laws, and the regulations of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission.

In the winter of 2001, the Wampanoag tribe erected a small shed on the Cook property without a town building permit. The resulting legal battle reached the SJC.

In December 2004, the state’s highest court ruled that the tribe, then the only federally recognized tribe in Massachusetts, was not immune from zoning enforcement under its claim of sovereign immunity.

The Aquinnah tribe said a Vineyard casino is only a last resort. The tribe has its eyes set on a 240-acre property in Fall River off Interstate 195. The Mashpee tribe has already signed an agreement with the city to build a casino complex on land identified for a state biotechnology park.

Fall River mayor Will Flanagan told the State House News that the Mashpee Wampanoag proposal to build a casino in Fall River was “light years ahead.”

Both tribes claim to have ancestral connections to land in southeastern Mass where they would like to build a casino and take land into trust.

Further complicating the tribes’ efforts, the Supreme Court last year ruled that the U.S. interior secretary does not have the authority to take land into trust for tribal nations that received federal recognition after the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act. The Mashpee Wampanoags received federal recognition in 2007. The Aquinnah Wampanoags gained recognition in 1987, prior to passage of a second law, the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which set up a regulatory structure for Indian gaming.

In an earlier conversation with The Times prior to Tuesday’s announcement, Ms. Carney said neither tribe has land in trust and would need to apply for a commercial license.

Ms. Carney said the Aquinnah tribe was in a strong position because the 240 acres had been under agreement for years, and unlike the biotechnology park, was unencumbered by existing agreements.

“It is a beautiful piece of property and our aboriginal land,” she said, “and whether or not we gamed on it, it would be nice to have a parcel of land on the mainland so we can service the tribal members who do actually live off-Island.”

Ms. Carney said Aquinnah tribe officials were surprised when Fall River mayor Will Flanagan announced a deal with the Mashpee tribe even as he was speaking with members of the Aquinnah tribe.

Asked if members of the Aquinnah Wampanoag had met with their Mashpee counterparts about a casino deal, Ms. Carney said, “Why? We are two separate tribes. Two separate philosophies. Two separate governments.”

Ms. Carney said that unlike the Mashpees, the Aquinnah tribe was not planning to fund a casino complex with overseas funds.

“We could have gone out and reached out to overseas money too,” she said. “But when you do that, as far as I am concerned there is another piece of the United States leaving the country.”

Ms. Carney said any casino success the tribe has would benefit Islanders. She said money the casino generates would flow to the state and benefit local communities including the Vineyard.

Ms. Carney said there are approximately 1,100 tribal members. From 300 to 350 reside on the Vineyard.

The financial benefits that would flow to the tribe would benefit Island and mainland members and provide a ripple effect throughout those communities she said.

In an email to The Times last yesterday, Ms. Carney said the Aquinnah Wampanoag Gaming Corporation is responsible for the tribe’s gaming initiative on a daily basis.

Ms. Carney said the tribe has an inherent right under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act to gaming for economic development on trust lands. “The tribe can do whatever is legal in the State of Massachusetts,” she said.

“Whether or not the tribe decides to act on those IGRA rights will be up to the tribal membership not the AWGC (gaming corporation),” she said.

She said trust lands belong to tribal members and they would determine the use of those lands in keeping with the tribe’s constitutional process.