Tribe makes its casino case in appeals court

The tribe's casino site in Aquinnah has been secured while an appeal is considered at the First Circuit.

The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) is asking an appeals court judge to overturn a lower court ruling that is standing in the way of its Island gambling facility.

On Tuesday, attorneys for the tribe filed a 177-page brief that spells out its case for the First Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse a ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Dennis Saylor IV. In his June ruling, Saylor said the tribe must seek town permits to build its Class II casino — essentially an electronic bingo hall — on reservation land.

The Aquinnah Wampanoag are allowed to build a casino under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) of 1988. In what’s been a lengthy legal battle with the state, the tribe’s position is that IGRA superseded a land agreement reached between the tribe and the state in 1987. The lawsuit began in 2015 with then-Gov. Deval Patrick filing suit in state court. The case was moved to federal court, where there have been as many twists and turns as an up-Island road.

The brief filed Tuesday by tribe attorney Scott Crowell calls Saylor’s ruling “repugnant to IGRA’s comprehensive and sophisticated regulatory scheme,” and seeks an injunction against the town.

The lower court ruling, “if allowed to stand, will deprive the tribe of those rights and privileges which IGRA affords other Indian tribes, and will destabilize the jurisdictional structure of Indian gaming throughout the United States,” the brief states. “Moreover, allowing the decision to stand will violate the United States’ jurisdiction over the land it holds in trust for the Tribe, by requiring the United States to be subordinate to state and local laws.”

The tribe appeared to be cleared for takeoff when the U.S. Supreme Court denied a request by the commonwealth and town to hear the case in January 2018. But in a legal maneuver last year, the town requested final judgment by Saylor in the case. While Saylor found the tribe was within its legal rights to build a casino, he also said that would require local and state permits. In July, Saylor issued an injunction against construction of the facility, and the tribe and town came to an agreement on securing the site.

The tribe appealed to the First Circuit, where its first appeal was successful in 2017. Among the arguments made in the lengthy brief is that Saylor erred by even considering the case, because 150 days had passed since the lower court docketed the appeals court mandate.

Last week, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission said its fairly recent entry into the legal squabble has cost the regional planning agency $89,000.


  1. Take it outside. To the mainland. Where it belongs. You’ll find no resistance there. Game away. Far away.

  2. Tribe, this is what gambling is. Why do you have to rob Many poor people of their families needed money needed for food, clothing, medicine, and education. Do something the Island needs? There are many things the island needs that Are profitable. We don’t need many new buses terrorizing our narrow roads And polluting our air. Attracting gamblers only increases potential crime. In contrary build a cultural center promoting And selling Native Indian Art. It’s not to late.

  3. The easiest way to stop this project is probably to just let them do it.
    If history has taught us anything it’s that any business venture the tribe undertakes will be dead in a year.

    • feilding– you are incorrect about “any” venture lasting more than a year.
      Their oyster farming project lasted about 5 years. That’s the good news.
      The bad news is that after 5 years, Menemsha pond and it’s shoreline had been fouled with all sorts of waste from the project. In September of 2010, a Times reporter walked the shoreline and reported ” More than 120 black plastic mesh grow bags could be seen scattered along the beach or washed up into the tidal marsh near both the Ackerman lease and the former tribe lease.”
      “Several bags were filled to bursting with dead oysters. Mooring balls and lines lay tangled along the pebbled shore. While some grow bags floated in orderly fashion in the shallow water just off the beach, hundreds more were piled up in disorderly heaps.”
      As I recall, the tribe had many disputes with the state and town about this failed endeavor.
      I have no idea whether the oyster project ultimately made or lost money for the tribe. I have no idea, in the end, who cleaned up the resulting mess, who paid for it, of if, in fact, some of this stuff is still floating around in the ocean killing turtles and other marine life.
      It seems to me that after nearly 30 years of legal fees,”studies”, architectural renditions etc, relating to the casino project, they could have put every one of their children through college for free, or at the very least finished off the community center. I have one tidbit of wisdom to offer here:
      “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it” – George Santayana

      • Yep,I remember that. Stuck the town with the bill and left their trash behind. Stewards of the land indeed…

  4. I remember first hearing about a casino on MV and thinking it was the craziest, stupidest, most terrible idea Aquinnah could possibly entertain. Who would have thought it would get this far?
    And here we are. If this debacle ever gets built, they should name it Cheryl’s Place.

  5. From a strictly business dollars-and sense perspective …. why would this even be considered a profitable venture ? Common sense dictates that year-round residents are unlikely to frequent a bingo hall enough to generate significant revenue. The likelihood of summer renter and vacationers choosing to spend their time on MV sitting in a bingo hall seems slim. And the plausibility of an Aquinnah gambling facility generating additional tourism to the island seems farfetched at best. By all means, develop the land in the best way to generate money and support for the tribe – a museum? Great restaurant ? Maybe something kid-friendly/sports related ? But an electronic bingo hall – not a great business prospect.

  6. Gee, I can’t think of any other business endeavor that ever failed on the island. But let’s all pick on the Wampanoags.

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