Casino construction frustrates some tribal members

Many Wampanoag members are ‘left in the dark’ about plans for Aquinnah casino.

Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, chairwoman of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), told The Times, "We are fully complying with the court order, and will continue to do so pending our appeal." — Stacey Rupolo

The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) has taken the first steps in constructing a Class II gaming facility on tribal trust lands. After being ordered by a federal judge to comply with local permitting procedures, the tribe has built rebar and footings at the construction site, showing no sign of adherence to town regulations. In late June, Judge F. Dennis Saylor IV wrote that the tribe will not have to comply with state and local gaming laws, but must comply with laws relating to the construction of a commercial building. The tribe has filed an appeal, and asked the court to issue a stay until the appeal is settled.

Aquinnah building inspector Lenny Jason served a cease and desist order to the tribe to halt all construction, but according to Aquinnah town administrator Jeff Madison, that order has been ignored, and construction is ongoing. “I was told to go to the construction site and tell them to stop,” Jason said. “It appears that they were building a foundation.”

Aquinnah Wampanoag chairwoman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais said in an email statement, “Our position is that, while the tribe and the town disagree on what work needs to be completed in order to ensure the construction site is secured safely, the tribe remains committed to ensuring the safety of the site. We are fully complying with the court order, and will continue to do so pending our appeal. The tribe is discussing available options to ensure site safety with the town, and we’re optimistic that we will reach an agreement very soon.”

Madison said that, while he “wholeheartedly supports” the tribe’s right to construct a facility on trust lands, he wishes they would comply with orders from the federal court to seek building permits for construction. 

Aquinnah selectman Juli Vanderhoop said she is “very worried” about the tribal council and its lack of communication with the rest of the tribe. “It’s hard to believe that a mutual relationship between the town and the tribe has never been attempted,” Vanderhoop said. 

Vanderhoop said the current tribal council has severed the partnership that town members, tribal members, and the council once shared. She expressed concern that the tribe is “making excuses” not to have proper lines of communication and “proper respect for each other as neighboring people.”

Because the Wampanoag Tribe is a sovereign nation, they use a centralized tribal government, apart from Aquinnah town government and the Martha’s Vineyard Commission.

“It makes no sense at all for us to be on opposite sides of this issue; we need to work together,” Vanderhoop said. 

According to Vanderhoop, the tribe needs additional opportunities for income, and good jobs for tribe members. She said the tribe promises that the casino will benefit all tribal members, but so far, she says, the type or number of jobs that may be available is nebulous. The tribe has said the casino will create around 100 full- and part-time jobs when operational.

“They [the tribe] say they are going to help us, but our heads have been spinning as to the reason we have been kept in the dark with all this,” Vanderhoop said. “It breaks my heart to see such a disconnect.” 

In Vanderhoop’s opinion, the town deserves to see reciprocity from the tribe, and willingness to treat an equal form of government with respect. “The council is very naive as to how to present this major development to the rest of the community, so instead they keep quiet,” Vanderhoop said.

Vanderhoop suggested the council create a short-term and long-term plan that works with the entire Island community, in order to prepare for the “great change” brought by the facility. She said using an arbitrator to facilitate constructive dialogue between the involved parties is the best route forward: “We would like them [the tribe] to be professional, especially in the face of such a serious situation. When my business has responsibilities, I have to face them — I would like to see the tribe face their responsibilities.”