A meeting between the town and tribe in Aquinnah has finally taken place, but no agreement has been reached on whether an access path to Lobsterville Beach, blocked off by the tribe last month with a rope barrier and a blockade of branches and brush, will be reopened.
“I met with the tribal council on Saturday, which actually for us was a historic moment, because we’ve not done that before,” selectman Jim Newman said at a meeting of the Aquinnah selectmen Wednesday morning. “It was a government-to-government discussion. The discussion was very amicable. I thought it was very productive,” he added.
He said members of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) asked what claim the town had to the access path, which is located near the entrance of Clay Pit Road. They agreed to invite town counsel Ronald H. Rappaport to a second meeting to discuss the land rights; that meeting took place on Monday. Both meetings were closed to the public.
Mr. Newman said he and Mr. Rappaport brought documents supporting the town’s right to access the path, which is located on tribal land, but has been open for public use for decades. A 1980s land claims settlement agreement signed by both the town and tribe ensures continued public use of the path. “[We] laid out our claim as to why we thought we should be able to traverse that path,” Mr. Newman said.
Mr. Newman said three members of the tribal council were present at the meeting, and Mr. Newman said they agreed to relay the information to the other members. There is no date set for a follow-up meeting, and Mr. Newman said he’s not sure what the council’s decision will be.
“I don’t dare say we’re going to get what we want,” he said. But he said that both he and Mr. Rappaport felt positive about the direction of the discussion.
Selectman and board chairman Camille Rose said she was not happy with the way the issue had been handled so far. She said under the settlement agreement, the tribe should have notified the town before blocking access to a path that had been traditionally open for public use. Ms. Rose also said there had been agreement between the town and tribe a number of years ago to meet regularly, but the meetings never happened. Mr. Newman said both sides share equal blame for failing to follow through on the agreement; he suggested that the selectmen attend tribal council meetings, held every six to eight weeks. It is a violation of the Massachusetts Open Meeting Law for more than one selectman to attend a closed-door meeting that is not a properly posted executive session under the law.
“Hopefully we will continue to have a dialogue . . . on a government-to-government level,” Mr. Newman said, deriding what he called a “circus” atmosphere in recent weeks.
When the path was blocked off, selectmen invited members of tribal council to a public meeting to discuss the closure, but a formal letter of notification about the meeting was delivered to the tribe just one the day before the meeting was scheduled to take place. No members of the council attended the meeting in an official capacity, and the session became a forum for town taxpayers to speak against the closure o f the sandy path.
This week Mr. Newman said that while the tribal council did not give a reason for the closure, it appeared to be because they discovered a town resident spraying an herbicide along the path to kill poison ivy. Townspeople present at the Wednesday meeting said that’s unacceptable.
“I think it should be made clear to the people on Clay Pit Road that if we’re allowed to continue using the path . . . you don’t have the right to go put Roundup [an herbicide] on it or to brush-cut there or to clip it. If there’s poison ivy there, put boots on. Altering the land isn’t the right of anybody,” said Barbara Bassett.
Selectmen Spencer Booker, who is a member of the tribe, agreed. He said he thought the spraying of Roundup along the path was the last straw for the tribe. “They do not use herbicides or pesticides. It’s not an Indian thing to do. I think that’s what sparked their ire this time around, and it’s making them hold firm,” Mr. Booker said.
by Megan Dooley