t’s now up to a federal judge to rule if the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) can offer gambling on its reservation, but state officials are still holding out hope that the decision will be in the commonwealth’s favor.

A ruling Tuesday by U.S. District Judge F. Dennis Saylor IV did not consider the merits of a long-standing conflict between the tribe and the state over gaming but did deal a significant blow to the contention by Gov. Deval Patrick that the tribe’s rights are governed by a 1983 land settlement with the state.

The tribe’s Indian casino rights are a federal issue, Saylor ruled.

But on Wednesday, a Patrick spokeswoman said that Saylor’s ruling is only about the venue.

“Whether in state or federal court, we are hopeful that the court will affirm the settlement agreement that the tribe entered into with the commonwealth, within which the tribe committed to comply with all state laws, including those related to gaming,” Heather Nichols said.

In his ruling, Saylor pointed to an 8th Circuit Court ruling that Indian gaming rights typically pre-empt land deals such as the one between the tribe and state.

Twice the Patrick administration has rebuked efforts by the Aquinnah to negotiate a compact for an off-island casino governing how much, if any, revenue the tribe would pay the state from gross gambling revenues.

With its efforts to open an off-island casino rejected by the state, the Aquinnah Wampanoag Gaming Authority has turned its attention to opening a small gambling facility in an unfinished community center next door to its government headquarters in Aquinnah.

For a Class II facility like the one now proposed by the tribe on the island, no compact is required or payment to the state is required so long as bingo is legal in the state, which it has been since 1973, Scott Crowell, the tribe’s lead attorney in the case, said.

The Seminole tribe in Florida made billions through bingo slots without sharing revenue with the state. In 2008, Florida and the tribe reached a compact that now allows full-scale gambling and gives Florida a cut of the action, but that deal is due to expire next year.

In an interesting twist, the two federally recognized tribes in Massachusetts would be the only entities eligible to offer expanded gambling in Massachusetts should a repeal of the casino law be approved by voters in November.

The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act allows tribes to offer gambling on reservation lands that is allowed under state law in their home states if certain conditions are met.

The Aquinnah tribe, in its statement after the ruling, contends it has all the approvals it needs to move forward with the facility.

Attempts to reach Ronald Rappaport, an attorney for the town of Aquinnah, and James Newman, chairman of the Aquinnah Board of Selectmen, were unsuccessful Wednesday.

The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe has an application for an initial reservation under review by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. With that application still pending and facing a myriad of legal hurdles, the Aquinnah would be ahead of the Mashpee tribe.
by George Brennan