Aquinnah opponents share frustration, strategy over tribe bingo hall plans

Aquinnah selectman and tribal member Julianne Vanderhoop said the Saturday meeting was intended to be a start in organizing opposition. — Photo by Nelson Sigelman

A cross section of Aquinnah that included elderly longtime seasonal residents and members of the Wampanoag tribe, young parents, toddlers, and babies gathered in the town hall meeting room on a warm, pleasant Saturday evening, where they expressed deep, heartfelt frustration and disbelief over plans by the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) to construct a bingo hall on tribal lands in the Island’s smallest town.

About 35 people attended the meeting, which was hastily organized by means of email, social media, and word of mouth amid the news last week that the tribe had rejected a town request to stop work to turn its long-dormant and unfinished community center into a Class II bingo hall.

Class II gaming encompasses high-stakes bingo, poker, pull-tab cards, and associated electronic games that do not require coin slots. Unlike Class III gaming, which encompasses all types of gaming and requires a tribe-state agreement, tribes may regulate Class II gaming on their own lands without state authority, as long as the state in which the tribe is located permits that type of gaming.

Much of the discussion focused on finding a strategy to thwart the tribe’s plans and to mobilize Island-wide opposition. There was considerable consternation over the changing nature of the town, and what the effect would be on the small rural community should the tribe be successful in its efforts.

Those who spoke against the bingo parlor included two former chairmen of the tribe, Beverly Wright and Donald Widdiss, and Aquinnah Selectman Julianne Vanderhoop, who is also a tribal member. Kristina Hook, a former member of the tribal council, decried the lack of any information or openness within the tribe about its business plan. No members of the current tribal leadership were present.

Although no clear consensus on a course of action emerged, all agreed that fundamentally, tribal members must be in the forefront of the effort, and that the first test would come late next month.

A petition signed by 73 members of the tribe has set the stage for a vote by the tribal membership on Sunday, August 16, on whether to proceed with the bingo hall. Two earlier votes favored construction. In each case, mainland tribal residents turned the tide. Speakers agreed the challenge would be to turn out the local vote and convince tribal members who live on the mainland that an Aquinnah-based bingo parlor would be an economic and cultural folly.

The discussion took place even as the Aquinnah Wampanoag Gaming Corporation, the tribal entity responsible for shepherding the bingo plan, prepares for a critical hurdle.

A hearing is scheduled August 12 before U.S. District Court Judge F. Dennis Saylor IV on cross-motions for summary judgement in the overarching case that began in December 2013, when Gov. Deval Patrick filed suit to block the tribe from moving forward with a gaming facility on Martha’s Vineyard. The fundamental legal issue is the extent to which the settlement agreement limits the tribe’s ability to build a casino, either in southeastern Massachusetts or on tribal lands on Martha’s Vineyard. Signed by tribal leadership in 1983, and ratified by the state legislature in 1985 and by Congress in 1987, the settlement agreement stipulated that the tribe was subject to local and state laws and zoning regulations in effect at the time.

The legal question still to be settled is whether the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) signed in 1988 trumps the settlement act Congress approved in 1987.

The state is joined in its lawsuit by the town and the Aquinnah/Gay Head Community Association Inc. (AGHCA), which has battled to protect the terms of the settlement agreement.

‘It’s a start’

Julianne Vanderhoop said she was approached by two members of the tribe, Tiffany Vanderhoop and Jason Widdiss, and asked to help organize the meeting. The young parents live in tribal housing, and are concerned about the effect a bingo hall would have on their community.

On Saturday night, Julianne Vanderhoop found herself thrust into a leadership role. Standing at the front of the room, she explained, “It’s a start.” She said that there are many people who may not know whether or not the residents of Aquinnah are in favor of a bingo hall.

“This is a small impromptu gathering, put together by very few people, but this is really good as a start for Aquinnah, because we don’t always come together too often,” she said.

Ms. Vanderhoop outlined modest expectations. The forum was intended, she said, to provide ideas about what to do and where to start.

Isaac Taylor, holding his young child, said he had grown up in Aquinnah, and he described the spirit and “magic” that made the town special and was at risk of being lost.

Mr. Taylor said unfortunately there seems to now be a divide in the town. “The beautiful time that I had as a kid is receding in the rearview mirror,” he said.

“The gambling thing, and the casino thing, it just blows my mind, it just doesn’t compute,” he said. “The idea of a community center is such a good idea, and this just doesn’t compute, it just doesn’t make any sense. And I guess my question is, Have we lost control to the point where we don’t have control over our town, and who’s making the decisions, and why?”

Apathy is the enemy

Kristina Hook, a former member of the tribal council and longtime opponent of the tribe’s gaming plans, could shed little light on that question.

Ms. Hook noted that she was 70 years old, and had grown up on Lobsterville Road in a town with far fewer amenities than now exist, but with a welcoming attitude. “If you weren’t accepted anywhere else on the Island, you could come to Gay Head,” she said.

“There are those of us who from the very beginning of this conversation said no,” she said, describing her early opposition to gaming. “No because we’re the children and the grandchildren and the great-grandchildren of people who took care of people, and worked hard, and had integrity and kept Gay Head what it was, and the reason that everybody came, because that’s what it was. I’m horrified beyond explanation.”

Ms. Hook said receiving money for doing nothing was not how she was raised. Using precious tribal land for a bingo hall, she said, violated all the tenets of Wampanoag culture. She said it was important for people to know there were tribal members opposed to the tribe’s plans.

Picking up on an earlier comment, she noted that only 20 percent of the tribe’s membership lives on Martha’s Vineyard. Pulling no punches, she said, the nature of the problem was, “We can’t get our own people to come to our meetings — our meetings where they made the decision to do this. Until we make our own people who have lived here for generations understand what this means, the fight is going to be more difficult, because we can’t equal the numbers that come from off-Island.”

Numbers count

Beverly Wright is intimately familiar with the issue of gambling. A former five-time chairman of the Wampanoag Tribe from 1991 to 2004, she unsuccessfully attempted to secure a gambling facility on the mainland when state law and the political currents did not favor casino gambling.

Ms. Wright spoke to the mentality of off-Island members. She said it was not their fault that they felt the way they did, because they see gaming as an opportunity to raise money for the tribe that would benefit tribal members.

“Which may be true, because we have never seen a business plan,” she said.

The fault line is the connection to the land, she said. For Island residents, this is their land. “They don’t have that connection,” Ms. Wright said. “I think it’s our job as tribal people to make our case, because I don’t think our case has ever been made like this … Instead of saying I disagree with you, we have to say I disagree with you because, and list the reasons.”

Ms. Wright said off-Island tribal members need to be convinced that they have made the wrong decision. “But that’s a big job, and whether or not we can accomplish that, I don’t know; I certainly hope so.”

Longtime seasonal resident Arnold Zack said he wanted to support the opposition to the bingo hall, and return to “that wonderful relationship that Indians and non-Indians had,” but he expressed concern that the leadership role remain with tribal members because it was essentially an internal tribal issue. He said what was needed was an identifiable tribal group that nontribal members could support.

Donald Widdiss returned to the court case, which he said would ultimately decide the issue. “The courts are going to take care of this pretty soon,” he said.

Crystallizing the issue, Aquinnah resident Jim Pickman said the most important thing for those in the room was to win the vote of the tribal membership on August 16. Mr. Pickman said opponents needed to make the economic case that a bingo hall was not feasible. Simply saying, Don’t do this to us, was not enough.

“There is no business plan because there can’t be a business plan,” he said. The tribal members were being “hoodwinked.”

Jason Widdiss, one of the organizers, said there were more than 50 children living in the tribal community. “We can all work and build our own community center,” he said.

He urged those in the room to work together to maintain the peace of their small rural community.