We report with cautious optimism this week that the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) says it plans to complete the unfinished community center that teams of Air Force reservists from Oklahoma and Alabama erected over the summer of 2004.
It is unlikely those citizen soldiers ever contemplated that 12 years after they left the Island’s smallest town, the building would remain unfinished, or that but for a legal challenge and a decision in favor of the town, the sound of basketballs on a gym floor might have been replaced with the noise and lights of electronic gaming.
Hopefully, the tribe will move with all haste to complete the community center so that it can be used for summer activities of the type originally contemplated for the 6,500-square-foot building that is to include a gym, kitchen, and meeting space.
For years, the building has represented a wedge between the tribe, and the town and wider Island community. In repeated votes, off-Island members of the tribe prevailed over Island members and directed the tribal leadership to pursue a so-called “boutique casino.”
That changed on Jan. 24, when the tribal council voted to complete the community center. There is now the possibility that the finished building will become a gathering place for tribal and nontribal year-round and seasonal Island residents. The Chilmark Community Center provides a good example of a vibrant space that serves many needs and constituencies.
Still, questions remain. Will the tribe comply with town building-permit and inspection requirements, or will it engage in another protracted legal struggle with the town over that issue? We hope that will not be the case, and that the tribe will put those objections aside for another day and a future ruling.
On Monday, lawyers representing the tribe filed a notice of appeal in U.S. District Court for the First Circuit, a procedural step on the way to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, as it seeks to overturn a ruling by U.S. District Court Judge F. Dennis Saylor IV that the tribe cannot build a gaming facility on tribal lands in Aquinnah.
The overarching question is whether the tribe’s decision reflects a change in direction or a change in strategy. Arizona-based lawyer Scott Crowell, an expert in Native American law, told The Times, “The decision to complete the community center for nongaming purposes is not relevant to the appeal.”
What is relevant is a Sept. 1 deadline to complete the building or repay federal grants totaling $1.1 million.
So what is the tribe’s intention with respect to utilizing the community center for gaming in the future? That is difficult to discern from the opaque statements of Wampanoag tribal chairman Tobias Vanderhoop.
“Since late 2015, the tribe has been faced with a series of decision points about the way to move forward in the best interest of our citizens,” Mr. Vanderhoop said in an email to The Times. “In light of the ruling by Judge Saylor, the prospect of completing the community center has been the main subject of many discussions within the tribal administration and in the tribal council chamber. In consultation with our federal partners at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the tribe has been granted additional time to complete the community center project, the deadline for which is September 2016. Our team is currently completing a plan that will define the requirements necessary to finalize the project. It is clear that completing the community center is in the best interest of our people.”
Mr. Vanderhoop is cautious and careful in his statements. That is understandable. However, the need for caution should not preclude the obligation to communicate when the tribe makes decisions that impact the wider community. The tribe’s monthly newsletter is not widely distributed and its website is stale.
Aquinnah town administrator Adam Wilson said he has not heard anything from Mr. Vanderhoop. Nor has Aquinnah selectman Julianne Vanderhoop, who is also a tribal member. Aquinnah is a small place, particularly in the winter. Neighbors ought to be able to find time to talk.