Aquinnah demands explanation from tribe

In letter to Aquinnah Wampanoag, town says Class II gaming facility is not allowed on certain land.

Aquinnah town administrator Jeff Madison and select chair Gary Haley present the 1884 declaration thanking Gay Head and Chilmark residents for their rescue efforts of the "SS City of Columbus."

Updated April 4

Douglas Kline of Goodwin Law in Boston sent a letter to the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) last week asking the tribe to get in contact with the town and to explain why the planned site for a Class II gaming facility, or bingo hall, is authorized under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA).

Kline has been retained by the town to provide advice and representation with regard to the tribe and the casino. The Aquinnah Cliffs Casino will feature electronic bingo machines that have the look and feel of slot machines to gamblers.

At a selectmen’s meeting Tuesday, town administrator Jeff Madison, who is also a tribe member, said dialogue between the tribe and the town has been nonexistent.

“They’re not cooperating in any way, shape, or form,” Madison said.

Earlier Tuesday, Madison gave town counsel the green light to file with the courts asking whether the land on which the casino is being built is permitted to have a gaming facility.

The letter says that under IGRA, Class II gaming is only authorized on “Indian lands,” which is defined as lands within the limits of any Indian Reservation or lands to which title is held in federal trust for a tribe. Only under a few circumstances does IGRA allow for Class II gaming on lands taken into trust.

“The tribe does not possess and has never possessed or claimed to possess a federally recognized ‘Indian reservation.’ Indeed, the Tribe — and the agency opinion letters the tribe previously elicited — has never argued that it possesses an ‘Indian reservation.’ Thus, the tribe may only operate a Class II gaming facility under IGRA if: (i) The land on which it intends to operate a facility was taken into trust by the United States for the tribes benefit before October 17, 1988; or (ii) if the land in question falls within one of the very limited exceptions to IGRA’s prohibition against gaming on lands taken into trust after October 17, 1988,” the letter reads.

The letter goes on to say the tribe is in violation of state and local gaming laws because the land, which was acquired by the tribe in 2014 and conveyed to the United States in trust in 2018, does not fall under IGRA’s exceptions for a gaming facility.

In February, a spokesman for the National Indian Gaming Commission told The Times that the tribe has met all of its federal requirements for the casino project.

“Despite clear direction from the SCOTUS and the First Circuit Court of Appeals, the town is once again attempting to interfere with the tribe’s economic development. Our tribe has worked diligently with our federal partners to ensure our site is eligible for gaming. As we have stated over and over again, we have all necessary federal approvals to move forward with the gaming facility on the current site,” Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, the tribe’s chairwoman, said in an email to The Times.

Madison said all the town wants is dialogue with the tribe.

“Nobody’s saying they can’t do gaming. That’s settled law. But we think that it’s important that the town know what it’s facing in the way of public safety, in the way of just being prepared for whatever may come as a result of their development.”

In other business, town attorney Ron Rappaport sent a letter on behalf of the town to state Rep. Dylan Fernandes, D-Falmouth, state Rep. Danielle Gregoire D-Marlborough, and state Sen Marc Pacheco, D-Taunton, opposing Senate bill 1801.

The bill, which was filed by petition by James Decoulos, seeks to overturn “Maria A. Kitras and James J. Decoulos v. Town of Aquinnah,” a 2016 unanimous decision from the Supreme Judicial Court which denied Decoulos an easement through town and Vineyard Conservation Society-owned lands to several of his landlocked properties.

The town and Decoulos have a long and fraught history over property rights and taxes.

The letter spells out the court’s decision to not grant Decoulos’ easements and details the financial burden of having to protect lands in the vicinity of Decoulos’ properties.

“[Aquinnah] urges that the legislature not enact the bill,” the letter states.

Tuesday’s meeting ended with a history lesson as Madison presented selectmen with an 1884 declaration by the commonwealth commending Gay Head and Chilmark residents for their efforts in trying to rescue people from the SS City of Columbus, a passenger boat that ran aground on Devil’s Bridge off Aquinnah. Of the 132 people who departed from Boston on the vessel, only 29 survived the ordeal, according to a 2012 story in The Times.

The document, which was in a dilapidated wooden frame, was found in the Aquinnah library. Madison, in agreement with selectmen, chose to donate the document to the Martha’s Vineyard Museum where it could be properly preserved. Madison added that an arrangement could be worked out so the Aquinnah Cultural Center could also display it.

“It’s been kicking around [the library] forever,” Madison said.


Updated to add comments from Cheryl Andrews-Maltais. — Ed.