Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) interest in casino gambling, apparently dormant for some time, has reemerged with news reports of a letter sent by the tribe’s leadership to the Freetown selectmen, expressing interest in potential sites for a gaming operation in that town.

In an undated letter to Freetown selectmen, received by them on January 12, the tribe said it has looked at potential sites, one in Fall River and another in Freetown.

“Both sites are rural and wooded in nature,” the letter said, “a setting which the tribe feels best compliments [sic] our image of where to build a more traditional and cultural styled facility.”

The two-page letter (available at mvtimes.com) appears to be as much an effort by the Gay Head tribe to put down a marker, as it is an overture to Freetown officials. Signed by Naomi Carney, Aquinnah Wampanoag gaming corporation chairman, and Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, Wampanoag chairman, the letter mostly outlines the tribe’s history and efforts and its claim to a seat at the gaming table.

“In the past we have enjoyed a good working relationship with the local communities and are committed to the continuation of our good reputation and relationship with all who may potentially be affected or benefitted by our efforts,” the tribe officials wrote. “With this in mind the Aquinnah Wampanoag’s [sic] would like to inform the governing body of Massachusetts that we remain interested in pursuing gaming in the Commonwealth. And we would like to further affirm that our intent is to remain in our indigenous ancestral territory located in the Southeastern Massachusetts region.”

In a telephone conversation yesterday, Ms. Carney said the tribe also sent a letter to the city council of Fall River, to ask for a meeting to discuss possible casino sites. Ms. Carney said the tribe had evaluated about 20 sites before selecting Freetown and Fall River.

The tribe’s return to the Massachusetts gaming competition comes as a group of players – including casino developers and opponents, elected officials looking for new sources of cash, and the Wampanoag Tribe of Mashpee – jockey for advantage, in anticipation that lawmakers will once again take up the question of casinos and slot machines.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo, who backs racetrack slot parlors and casinos, plans to file a gambling bill in March, and expanded gambling has support from both Gov. Deval Patrick and Senate President Therese Murray.

The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe has moved aggressively to position itself to cash in on a casino. In 2007, the tribe signed an agreement with Middleboro selectmen designed to pave the way for a casino resort on 539 acres of land in that town. They also submitted an application to the Bureau of Indian Affairs to have the land taken in trust, essentially making it part of a Mashpee reservation.

The Cape Cod Times recently reported that leaders of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe met with the mayor of Fall River to talk about building a casino there. The Cape newspaper also reported yesterday that the tribe wants to cut ties with its original financial backers and has signed a new deal with a group of Malaysian casino investors.

Ms. Carney said there have been no discussions between the two tribes about their respective casino plans. She discounted the notion that the two tribes are competitors.

“I think there is room for two Indian casinos in Southeastern Mass, absolutely, but it is a little premature to figure out where everybody is going yet, because the legislature hasn’t even started working on a bill yet,” she said. “Right now, it is just a case of waiting to see how the state wants to handle it.”

In their letter, the Aquinnah Wampanoag leaders acknowledge the changing political landscape. They said that as the gaming debate surfaces in the state legislature, they want to reiterate their interest in acquiring a gaming license.

“Although our tribe has not been very vocal recently, we have been watching the debate and the change of attitude toward legalizing gaming within the governing body of the Commonwealth,” the Aquinnah tribe’s leaders wrote. The tribe asked to meet with selectmen at their earliest convenience to discuss how they might mutually benefit from the expansion of gaming.

No meeting has been set.

A long history

The Gay Head tribe’s interest in gaming has followed a long path and involved a changing cast of partners.

In 1994, the tribe and its corporate backers, Carnival Hotels and Casinos, unveiled plans that depicted a 450,000-square-foot casino, a 270,000-square-foot entertainment complex, and a 500-room hotel with 8,000 to 9,000 parking spaces on 175 acres in the city of New Bedford.

The tribe next went to Fall River and tried to cut a new deal to build a 60,000-square-foot, 1,200-seat high-stakes bingo hall at the former Fall River Municipal Airport.

In August 2001, the tribe launched another effort to build a gambling casino in Southeastern Massachusetts by assembling a high-priced lobbying team to win support from state lawmakers. The tribe’s backing for its third attempt to build a casino came from the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana, which operates the highly profitable Paragon Casino in central Louisiana.

In October 2007, under the administration of Donald Widdiss, Ms. Andrews-Maltais’s predecessor, the Wampanoag Tribe signed a development agreement with the Seneca Nation, a tribe in New York that has developed two casinos. That agreement has since lapsed, according to a Seneca gaming official.

Regarding new partners, Ms. Carney told The Times the tribe is keeping its options open. She said the tribe expects to begin meeting with local and state officials.

In an interview with The Times published July 17, 2008, (“New leaders, new course for tribe”) Ms. Maltais, who was elected in November 2007, said of gaming, “We’re waiting to see where the window is at, whether the window is open, closed, or ajar.”

Ms. Andrews-Maltais described the tribe’s efforts like those of a swimming duck – that is, it may look like nothing is happening above the water, but below the water, the duck is paddling furiously.

This week, efforts to reach Ms. Maltais and Ms. Carney for comment on the tribe’s latest gaming development effort were unsuccessful.

By Nelson Sigelman
Published: February 11, 2010