All seats were filled in the tiny town hall room used by the Aquinnah selectmen Thursday evening for a meeting between the town and Wampanoag tribal council members about the closure of a path to Lobsterville Beach, but one party was noticeably absent: the tribe.
Selectman and board chairman Camille Rose opened the special meeting with a review of the issue at hand. The tribe has roped off a sandy path located near the entrance to Clay Pit Road and blocked it with a pile of brush. Town residents and officials say the path is a public access and should be reopened.
“There are a lot of people who came here to talk about their experience with this [closure],” Ms. Rose said.
But her call for comment from tribal council members was met with silence, as no one representing the tribe appeared to speak at the meeting, which was scheduled a week in advance.
“We have sent a letter to the tribe inviting them to come and speak with us about this,” said Ms. Rose. “We expected that people would come here and we would talk about it.”
Instead, the meeting saw an impassioned outcry from a group of residents who said the closure is a violation of public rights.
Ms. Rose said the selectmen first became aware of the closure about two weeks ago, and have been unable to get answers from the tribe about why the path was roped off. In an earlier meeting of the selectmen, she said the path is an ancient way, and protected as such under an early 1980s land claims settlement agreement signed by both the tribe and the town.
At the meeting Thursday night Ms. Rose said that she had spoken to Bret Stearns, natural resources director for the tribe, who denied that the path was protected in the settlement agreement. “I thought we had a good working relationship, but he was adamant that that path was not going to be opened again,” said Ms. Rose.
Town officials have not been able to locate a map of the area in question that was referenced in the settlement agreement. Several Aquinnah residents who attended the meeting brought their own photographic proof that the path did exist, and was open for public use, prior to the agreement. Barbara Bassett produced several photos dating back to the 1950s that depicted townspeople and tribal members using the path. “There certainly was town usage and public usage,” she said. “We’re not talking about just sporadically either.”
Attorney and former selectman Jeffrey Madison, who is also a member of the tribe, said he was disappointed to see the town and the tribe in conflict again, calling it a recurring cycle. “We’ve got to go through one of these every two or three years to clear the air,” he said.
The latest dispute comes six years after the conclusion of a protracted legal battle between the tribe and the town over land sovereignty rights, after the tribe built a shed and pier on Menemsha Pond without a building permit in 2001. In 2004, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled in favor of the town, claiming that the 1983 settlement agreement required the tribe to follow state and local zoning laws for land use projects.
Mr. Madison said he signed the original settlement agreement, and believes that in this case, the path was protected in the document for public use. “I think this issue’s gotten way out of hand,” he said. “My opinion is that this path should continue to have its traditional use.”
Mr. Madison also asked for consideration of behalf of the tribe. “From a tribal member’s standpoint, the raw nerve that has jolted the issue here is that it appears to [the tribe] that the town is trying to take another bite of the apple that will diminish or lessen the sovereign issues that the tribe . . . gave up hugely in the original debate. I would urge and will urge . . . the tribal council to not disturb the traditional use there. But I would also ask [the town] . . . to try to understand what owning that land means to us tribal folks. I’ll just conclude by saying, yeah, this issue got heightened, and I don’t know why,” he said.
But Aquinnah summer resident Rick Gross called the path closure a clear act of provocation on the part of the tribe. He said in the interest of cooperation between two overlapping governing bodies, the tribe should have approached the town to discuss the issue before moving forward with the closure. “Why discussion wasn’t the first option is a mystery to me,” he said. “I would like to see the town and the tribe have a useful discussion.”
Tribal council member and former chairman Beverly Wright attended the meeting, but said she was present not as a representative of the tribe but as a town resident. She said the tribal council had not met since the selectmen scheduled the meeting, and she urged the board to reach out to the tribe again. “Nobody is opposed that it’s a government-to-government issue,” said Ms. Wright. “Let the tribal council and the town set up a meeting. I don’t think we can do anything else other than that right now.”
Ms. Rose agreed. “We would be ready to meet with them tomorrow,” she said. “We would work assiduously to settle it. We have one more month of summer here. I would love to see at least an agreement.”
by Megan Dooley