Wampanoag tribal elections on Sunday

Two former chairmen vie for the top seat.

Tobias Vanderhoop will not seek relection as chairman of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah). – File photo by Lynn Christoffers

On Sunday, Nov. 20 the Wampanoag Tribe of  Gay Head (Aquinnah) held elections for a new tribal chairman and several other leadership positions. The winner will replace Tobias Vanderhoop, who was elected in November 2013 and is not seeking reelection. The contest was between two former chairmen, Donald Widdiss and Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, who lost her seat in 2013 to Mr. Vanderhoop. Elections, which are held every three years, are open to all members of the tribe, who numbered 1,289 in 2015, 315 of whom live on Martha’s Vineyard. Most of the rest of the members live in eastern Massachusetts. The balloting was preceded by a tribal council meeting on Wed. Nov. 17, which was open only to members of the tribe.

On Monday morning, Nov. 21 the Times received the results of the election from the tribal council office. A total of 190 ballots were counted. With 115 votes Ms. Andrews-Maltais has again become chairman after a three-year absence. Mr. Widdiss received 67 votes and, although he had declined to run again, Mr. Vanderhoop received 5 votes. Eleanor Hebert was elected secretary by a wide margin over two opponents. Incumbent Shelley Carter will retain her seat on the tribal council, and Naomi Carney, Kristina Hook, and Carol Ann Vandal will join it.

The two candidates for chairman this year had different perspectives on the issue of building a casino in Aquinnah. Whether or not to turn the unfinished community center into a Class II gaming facility is the central issue for the tribe. In May 2011, in a sparsely advertised ballot the Wampanoags of Gay Head (Aquinnah) voted to turn the building into a casino. A second ballot, held one year later, saw the same result, but with a narrower margin in favor. Ms. Andrews-Maltais was the tribal chairman at the time and has been a strong proponent of the casino. Mr. Vanderhoop has said that he supports an “appropriate gaming initiative.”

“An opportunity arises when you have certain skills, and it comes to the forefront at this time,” Mr. Widdiss told The Times the day before the election when asked why he is seeking the office of chairman again. “There has been an emphasis on government programs, but we need to expand our efforts beyond that while maintaining the respect of local, state, and federal governments. Tribal governments tend to get bogged down in bureaucracy.”

Mr Widdiss, who was chairman from 1987, when the tribe was recognized by the federal government, to 1991, and then again from 2005 to 2008, believes that less time should be spent maintaining the tribe’s relationship with governments and more time and effort should go into expanding the tribe’s influence both on- and off-Island.

“We need to strengthen our networking and planning,” he said. “I’m offering my services.” Mr. Widdiss said he worked for 11 years toward federal recognition. His mother Gladys Widdiss was also active in that effort and also served as tribal chairman.

In 2007, when Mr. Widdiss was chairman, the tribe signed a development agreement with the Senecas of New York State, who have developed two casinos, but the agreement has since lapsed. However, at a July 2015 meeting of non-tribal and tribal residents of Aquinnah, Mr. Widdiss was among those who spoke against the development of a bingo parlor in the town.

In an interview the day before the tribal election Mr. Widdiss said of the tribe’s efforts to have a casino at Aquinnah, “It’s our responsibility to look at every opportunity. We have to assess its viability. Until it’s a real opportunity, we have to pursue assessment.”

Ms. Andrews-Maltais could not be reached for comment before the election.

In November 2015 U.S. District Court Judge F. Dennis Saylor IV ruled that the Wampanoags should not be allowed to develop a Class II casino at Aquinnah because the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA), signed in 1988, does not trump the Settlement Act, signed by tribal leadership in 1983 and ratified by the state legislature in 1985 and by Congress in 1987. That agreement stipulated that the tribe was subject to local and state laws and zoning regulations in effect at the time, and has formed the bedrock of the longstanding legal relationship between the tribe and the rest of Martha’s Vineyard.

The tribe has repeatedly contested rulings in favor of the town of Aquinnah and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and the casino/gaming issue remains unresolved.

In a brief filed in June 2016 by the U.S. Department of Justice in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, Justice Department lawyers argued that the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act “implicitly repealed” the Settlement Act that has checked the tribe’s gaming ambitions for almost three decades.