Tribal members will be allowed to park at the bend along West Basin Road in order to access common land that is a federally granted birthright for all members of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah).
The pull-off area has only recently become an issue, after the town first put up a no-parking sign, and then changed the sign to “resident parking” after receiving complaints from tribal members that they were being ticketed.
Now the town will be ticketing anyone parked along that pull-off area who does not have a tribal ID visible in their vehicle.
Tribal member Jamie Vanderhoop said at Wednesday’s selectmen’s meeting that she is very concerned that non-tribal members have been accessing the common lands and trespassing, and is even more concerned that tribal members were being ticketed.
“Tribal members have been parking along West Basin Road to access their traditional hunting and water rights since before Aquinnah was a town,” Jamie said. “I am a little discouraged to hear that tribal members, who are exercising their indigenous right, have been getting tickets this year for something that has always happened.”
Vanderhoop said she is concerned about her children and their ability to access the land, and is also worried about any legal ramifications the town might face by granting access to tribal lands by non-tribal people.
“I don’t understand the harassment of tribal people for accessing land they have always accessed for thousands of years,” Vanderhoop said.
Aquinnah Police Chief Randhi Belain took some offense to the word “harassment,” and board of selectmen chair Jim Newman said it was never anyone’s intention to harass tribal members.
“I believe the police were just trying to do their job, because we have not often seen cars parked there,” Newman said.
Belain said any tickets issued to tribal members for parking in the area were taken back, but Jamie said that Wampanoags who were ticketed were “hurt deeply in their identity, because it seemed like they were being penalized for accessing something that is their human, aboriginal right to access.”
Town administrator Jeff Madison said he accepts responsibility for changing the sign to “resident parking,” and noted that the area has only recently become problematic because anglers in the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby would park there when the town suspends all parking regulations for the Derby.
Tribal members at the meeting advocated for the town to put a sign restricting parking to Wampanoags only at the pull-off, but Madison said that is not within the town’s rights.
“The town cannot put up a sign that says tribal parking only. All we can do is say resident parking only,” Madison said. “Now, in order to enforce the no-trespass, the tribe has every right to post on their land, and say, ‘Access to tribal members only.’”
Vanderhoop suggested a sign saying, “Parking only for accessing federal indigenous water rights.”
“All this land has been stolen, and they [tribal members] have been given back a piece, and now you are saying they need to fight to access that piece, and share that piece of land with non-tribal members — that’s what a resident-only sign says to me,” she said.
Tribal member Heidi Vanderhoop said this was a nonissue until the signs went up and people “started trying to solve a problem that really wasn’t a problem before a couple weeks ago.”
She also disagreed with Madison’s timeline of when the sign was put up, and said that the sign just went up recently.
Belain disagreed, saying parking has been an issue, particularly during the Derby.
Jamie Vanderhoop wondered why the town would take issue with putting up a sign that restricts parking to tribal members, and also educates the public about the aboriginal rights of Wampanoag.
Madison reiterated that the town cannot put up a sign restricting access to non-tribal members of the Aquinnah community, while letting tribal members use the town-owned parking area.
Tribal member Berta Welch said the Wampanoag people have always had to fight for their rights. “I better not get a ticket for parking and picking beach plums. This needs to be resolved, and I am not quite sure this meeting and this forum is going to take care of the issue,” Welch said. “It is negotiations between the town and the tribe, and you know what that means in the present condition of the administration of the tribe.”
In the meantime, Welch said, there are tribal members like Madison and Belain who are in positions of power in the town, and she believes the two governments can come to an understanding.
Tribal member Amera Ignacio said it is obvious there is a breakdown in communication between the town and the tribe, and continued to say that when it comes to sensitive issues such as this, making unilateral decisions is a “bad idea.”
Madison expressed his frustration in trying to reach out to the tribe regarding this issue, and said whenever he reaches out to tribal government, he gets either a one-sentence response, or no response “for months on end.”
“This decision was not made in a vacuum; I do reach out to the tribe,” Madison said.
Public works director Jay Smalley said that, as a tribal member, he is disappointed that the tribal government did not attend the meeting. “I feel pretty bad our tribal government isn’t on this call; they really should be,” he said.
At this point, a no-parking sign will be put in place of the existing residents-only sign, and anyone with a tribal ID on their dashboard will not be ticketed.
Smalley said he would send a letter to tribal council notifying them of the selectmen’s decision.