Gaming ambitions promise contentiousness ahead


In 2006, this space recalled the December 2004 decision of the state Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) that ruled that the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) is subject to local enforcement of zoning regulations with respect to the construction of a small shed on the so-called Cook Lands.

Congress’s Indian Land Claims Settlement Act of 1987, flowing from the 1983 settlement agreement among town, tribe, and state — which all parties signed – provided 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 (MVC)…”

In August of 2006, members of the Aquinnah Gay Head Community Association (AGHCA) reflected on the success of the lawsuit that resulted in the SJC decision and looked forward to devoting the group’s energy and money to community endeavors and not lawsuits.

At the time, Lawrence Hohlt of the AGHCA described the future work of the Community Association and his confidence that the “Intergovernmental agreement on cooperative land use and planning between the Wampanoag Indian tribe and the town of Aquinnah,” (MOU) that town and tribe were negotiating would provide a framework for future cooperation. For Mr. Hohlt and the members of the Community Association most involved with the lawsuit and the defense of the agreement signed in 1983, the view for the future, at least in 2004, was refreshing. Today, the future is less so.

Generally, an agreement such as the 1983 settlement agreement would not be difficult for each side to abide by, but in this case the clear impression is that the Wampanoag side chafes at the elements of the agreement that intrude upon its changing and expanding sense of its sovereignty. The result is a querulous posture toward the town of Aquinnah.

And now we report that the tribe has withdrawn from that MOU. Almost certainly, the tribe’s single-minded determination is that its financial future depends on gambling. A mainland casino would be best, but a more limited casino in Aquinnah will do.

The betting here, if you will, is that the abandonment of the MOU will be followed ultimately by a legal challenge to the terms of the 1983 agreement and to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s decision upholding the terms of that agreement. That battle will be joined in the pursuit of on-Island gaming. Sovereignty will be the battle cry, sovereignty unrestrained by past sworn agreements, negotiated and concluded in good faith.

It is not surprising. The memorandum that in 2007 suggested a smoother, more neighborly path ahead for both town and tribe became, in the tribe’s view, an impediment to its ambitions. Given the drift of the tribe leadership’s thinking, especially as the center of political power among the Wampanoags shifted from longtime Island members to members who live off-Island, it is a wonder the MOU was concluded in the first place. Neither past agreements entered into in good faith nor the neighborliness of longtime Aquinnah (Gay Head) Wampanoag residents toward their fellow non-Indian townspeople or toward Islanders in the other five towns tempers the tribe’s ambitions today. Gaming will have its day in court.