Like New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in Saturday’s Super Bowl rally at Gillette Stadium, the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) appears to be shouting, “We’re still here.”
The tribe is objecting to a federal bill that would provide reservation land to the Mashpee Wampanoag in southeastern Massachusetts, but makes no mention of the Island tribe’s ties to the mainland.
In a letter dated Jan. 22 and signed by Aquinnah Wampanoag chairwoman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, the tribe points out that there are two federally recognized tribes in southeastern Massachusetts, known as Region C, in the state’s gambling law.
It comes as part of the public comment sought by the commission in response to a request that Region C be reopened to a potential commercial casino. The request was made by Mass Gaming & Entertainment, which lost out in 2016 on a bid to open a commercial casino in Brockton, in part because the Mashpee Wampanoag’s plans in Taunton were still active and alive.
The original state law set aside the region for a federally recognized tribe to locate an Indian casino in the region. Then-Gov. Deval Patrick negotiated a tribal-state compact with the Mashpee tribe, but refused to even sit down with the Aquinnah tribe, citing the settlement agreement of 1987 between the Aquinnah tribe, the town, and the commonwealth.
In 2012, the Aquinnah tribe sought to purchase land on the Freetown-Lakeville town line for a full-scale casino, but ultimately began pursuit of a smaller bingo hall, known as a Class II facility in Indian gaming legislation, on its reservation land. That prompted a lawsuit by the Patrick administration, the town, and the Aquinnah/Gay Head Community Association.
Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear that case, setting the stage for Aquinnah to pursue its Island gambling facility, which is still being planned.
“In preparation for your discussion on Region C, we write to remind the commission that the only federally recognized tribe with land eligible for gaming in the commonwealth is the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) … and must be considered in any discussion regarding gaming in the commonwealth and Region C,” Andrews-Maltais wrote.
The letter also objects to a federal bill known as the “Mashpee Reservation Reaffirmation Act,” which was filed by U.S. Rep. William Keating. The bill was filed to take land in Taunton into federal trust for the Mashpee tribe in its pursuit of a casino, after a court overturned a decision by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to take that land into trust for the Mashpee tribe.
“While we remain empathetic to the legal challenges facing our sister tribe the Mashpee Wampanoag, as introduced, the legislation has the very real potential to have a serious adverse effect on our tribe and our sovereign right to acquire additional lands in shared Wampanoag ancestral territory within the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,” the letter states. “Unless and until the legislation is amended to include our tribe, we must remain adamantly opposed to its introduction and passage, and have relayed our position to members of Congress co-sponsoring the bill.”
The Aquinnah tribe has requested an amendment to the federal legislation seeking that its name be added to the reaffirmation act.
Lauren Amendolara McDermott, a Keating spokeswoman, responded in an email, “Congressman Keating’s legislation seeks to right a wrong done to the Mashpee tribe by the Trump administration, who are making motions to take their land out of trust,” she wrote. “Thankfully, the Aquinnah are not in this situation. The congressman’s bill is specifically and narrowly designed to make sure the Mashpee are protected under these unique and imminent circumstances. However, we will continue to work with the Aquinnah to address their concerns through the committee of jurisdiction in the House.”
The Andrews-Maltais letter goes on to point out that both Aquinnah and Mashpee tribes are considered successor tribes to the Wampanoag nation, whose territory spanned from Boston southwest to Rhode Island, and eastward to the Cape and Islands. “This ‘successor’ designation is important because as the remaining successors to Wampanoag Nation, we are also both the successors to all the territory of the nation, which encompasses all of southeastern Massachusetts, including the area designated as Region C,” the letter states.
The letter also points out the two different paths taken by the tribes to federal recognition, which is a status that provides tribes the right to gambling under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988.
In her letter, Andrews-Maltais also offers perspective on where tribe members live. “Today only 25 percent of Aquinnah Wampanoag tribal members reside on the Island of Martha’s Vineyard, with the majority of the other members residing within the former Wampanoag Nation territory on the mainland — primarily within Region C,” the letter states. “The disbursement of tribal members makes maintaining the right and ability to acquire tribal trust land within this territory even more critical for the Aquinnah Wampanoag.”
Elaine Driscoll, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, wrote in an email that the commission has not set a date to discuss the future of Region C. The commission’s new chairwoman, Cathy Judd-Stein, takes over next week.