Town, community group win right to join state suit against tribe casino

Erected by Air Force reservists in 2004, the Wampanoag tribe said it plans to convert its unfinished community center into a class II gaming facility. — Photo by Nelson Sigelman

U.S. District Court Judge F. Dennis Saylor IV ruled from the bench Wednesday in U.S. Federal District Court in Boston that the town of Aquinnah and the Aquinnah/Gay Head Community Association Inc. (AGHCA) may intervene in a lawsuit Governor Deval Patrick filed to block the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) from building what the tribe has described as a boutique casino on tribal lands.

Governor Patrick first filed suit in December in state court. The Wampanoag tribe argued that the case rightly belonged in federal court. Earlier this month, Judge Saylor agreed, noting that the body of federal law supersedes state law with respect to gaming on Indian lands. On July 10, the town and AGHCA filed motions to intervene.

The case, now in federal court, could determine if the Wampanoag Tribe may build a casino in Aquinnah. The central issue and major hurdle in the tribe’s long-running battle to build a casino, either in southeastern Massachusetts or on tribal lands on Martha’s Vineyard, is the Settlement Agreement, signed by tribal leadership in 1983 and ratified by the state Legislature in 1985 and by Congress in 1987, which stipulated that the tribe was subject to local and state laws and zoning regulations in effect at the time.

Ron Rappaport, Aquinnah town counsel, said that the town has no interest in whether the Aquinnah tribe games anywhere other than in the town of Aquinnah. “We want to be heard because we want to protect the interests of the citizens of the town, and we’re pleased that we have now been formally allowed to intervene in the case.”