AQUINNAH, Mass. — An opinion from the National Indian Gaming Commission recognizing the Wampanoag tribe’s right to build a casino on Martha’s Vineyard is now at the heart of Sunday’s election for tribal chairman.
If the casino is built, people would have to travel there on a narrow two-lane road called State Road. The countryside there looks like much of the countryside all over the island, and especially in the part of the island called “up island.” There’s a lot of scrub. There are some short trees all barren of leaves now and old New England stone walls in perfect alignment.
A letter from the National Indian Gaming Commission released this week gave the green light to a casino. But there is disagreement as to how much legal weight that letter carries.
Ron Rappaport didn’t give it much importance. He is the attorney for five of the towns on the Vineyard, including Aquinnah.
“It is not an opinion from the Justice Department or from the solicitor general of the United States, or more importantly, it is not a decision from a court,” Rappaport said.
The commission’s letter revives the debate over whether the Wampanoag tribe of Aquinnah can build a casino on the island, whether it would be good for the tribe and what it would do to the character of the overrun yet still bucolic sanctuary that is Martha’s Vineyard.
The letter said the tribe never waived its sovereign rights to develop a casino when it signed a land settlement agreement with the town and the state three decades ago. But Rappaport said the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decided that the tribe is subject to town regulations. It was a case that involved a shed. The tribe argued it did not need a building permit from the town, but could issue its own building permit.
“This Massachusetts Supreme Court carefully went through the history, and concluded that the tribe waived its sovereignty in the settlement agreement as ratified by the Legislature and Congress, and said that they absolutely need to have a building permit in order to build what was then just a shed,” Rappaport said.
But tribe member and Aquinnah Selectman Spencer Booker saw a distinction between the shed and the community center where the tribe is proposing to develop a slots parlor and poker tables. The shed, he said, was not on sovereign tribal lands. The proposed casino would be.
“That court case did not address those lands,” Booker said. “The tribe, they have their own zoning, their own permitting process. They have been cooperative with the town in terms of letting us come in and do our inspections and things of that nature relative to the community center, up to this point, and I just don’t know where it will go from here. We don’t know.”
Booker works at Alley’s, the general store in West Tisbury. It sells everything from asparagus to hardware and is the crossroads of “up island” — the towns of West Tisbury, Chilmark and Aquinnah, away from the Vineyard’s more densely populated towns. People come into Alley’s all day and all year: construction workers on their breaks, seniors chatting, presidents of the United States and their daughters. Sue Hruby walked in to pick up the paper, keen to share her opinion about the casino.
“I think it’s a disaster for the island,” Hruby said. “I understand why the Wampanoags would want to do that. I understand that it’s their right to do it. I don’t understand the federal decision without understanding the impact on the island. The traffic is going to be a disaster. They have a right to do it, but they don’t have a right to destroy the island. Of course, there’s a point of view that would say we destroyed their island.”
A casino would affect the entire island.
At Mocha Mott’s, on Main Street in Vineyard Haven, people on Thursday stopped on their way to their jobs and to school, and held every imaginable opinion on the matter.
Sitting at a table near the window sipping his coffee was Gene Leonard, who repairs diesel engines and electric systems at the Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard.
“I have mixed feelings about it,” Leonard said. “I think the Wampanoags are a sovereign entity, so they have some rights there, but it would also I think detract from the island to have a casino. I think they’ve worked very hard to keep the character of the island true, and it’s a little difficult to see something like that come.”
But some from a younger generation see it differently.
“I think it’s kind of exciting,” said Sarah Alexander, a high school senior on the Vineyard. “I mean, nothing really happens like that on the Vineyard. I think it’d be cool, especially if it’s in Aquinnah. They need a little action up there. And I know my dad would go down there once in a while, and a lot of other dads would totally go down there.”
The timing of the release of the casino letter by tribe Chairwoman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais had some people wondering.
Booker said it’s not a coincidence.
“The timing of the letter coincides incredibly with the fact that we have an election on Sunday where the chairwoman is up for re-election, and she has a very strong opponent with Tobias Vanderhoop,” Booker said.
The 39-year-old Vanderhoop weighed his words carefully. He called the timing “interesting,” given that the tribe received the letter in October.
“It wasn’t a surprise that our rights were going to be acknowledged,” Vanderhoop said.
Most Aquinnah Wampanoag agree that the tribe has the right to build a casino on Martha’s Vineyard. But Vanderhoop, who is campaigning for more openness in tribal government, said people are divided over whether the tribe should open a casino on the island.
“I am in favor of an appropriate gaming initiative for our people, but our people are the ones that have to define what is appropriate, and that discussion needs to really happen in a more in-depth way. People need to understand what the details are, how it would truly work, so that they can fully make a decision, an informed decision,” Vanderhoop said.
The 1,200 members of the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe are scattered across New England. Most live on the mainland — in New Bedford, Fall River, Worcester, the Boston area and Rhode Island. They would support a casino on the island. Most of the 300 members who live on the Vineyard oppose a casino. There is no absentee voting in the tribal election; people must return to the island to vote. And observers of this election said that by releasing the letter from the National Indian Gaming Commission this week, Andrews-Maltais was trying to motivate mainlanders to come back for Sunday’s election and vote for her.
Andrews-Maltais said she would not grant an interview until next week, after the election.