BOSTON — The Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe surprised the state Tuesday by revealing that the federal government has recognized its right to develop a casino and poker rooms on the tribe’s land on Martha’s Vineyard.
The tribe’s chairwoman, Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, said it will open a slots parlor in its community center in Aquinnah within months.
“As soon as we’re able to make a decision on who we’re going to partner with, we’ll be moving forward with a final conversion process of that building from the shell that it is to our gaming facility,” Andrews-Maltais said on a conference call with reporters from Washington, D.C. “As far as how large we want to go, as we’ve said we wanted to make sure that we’re consistent with the modesty that we believe should be there, and we want to make sure that we don’t overbuild and put too much of a debt burden on our community.”
Andrews-Maltais said once the revenue from gambling starts coming in, the tribe will convert the building to a community center and build a separate slots parlor and poker rooms. She said the facility will have several hundred slot machines. She predicted gambling will help people on the island who depend on tourism keep their jobs year-round.
The chairwoman said the tribe does not need the permission of the all-powerful Martha’s Vineyard Commission to develop gambling, but she promised to keep the commission apprised. She also expressed the belief that she can build support for the casino by sharing gambling revenues with the towns on the island.
“We can also help with other things that we’ve done in the past, as far as helping with donations towards the large capital investments that have taken place on the island and other things that the towns have not been able to afford on their own,” Andrews-Maltais said.
Andrews-Maltais sent Gov. Deval Patrick a letter asking to reopen negotiations for a full casino on Martha’s Vineyard.
Patrick’s response was adamant that the only tribe he needs to negotiate with are the Mashpee Wampanoags.
“There is a document where the Aquinnah have waived those rights, so we’ve been working with the Mashpee,” Patrick said to reporters.
An attorney for the Aquinnah said if the governor refuses to negotiate, federal law allows the tribe to sue the state, and eventually the tribe could develop a casino without state approval.
Senate Majority Leader Stan Rosenberg, one of the architects of the state’s gambling law, called the federal government’s recognition of the Aquinnah’s rights a development out of left field.
“It was our general understanding that based on legislation passed at the federal level quite a number of years ago that the Aquinnah got land in trust, got special considerations in lieu of doing gaming on the Vineyard,” Rosenberg said.
Rosenberg said he’s waiting for his staff to conclude its research to see what the latest decision means.
But the decision of the Indian Gaming Commission says the tribe’s rights to conduct gambling on their land trump the agreement the tribe reached with the state, even though that agreement was codified by Congress. The Indian Gaming Commission says that federal law is trumped by the federal law that gives the tribe the right to conduct gambling.