The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) said Tuesday it has received federal approval, in the form of a legal analysis from the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC), to convert its long unfinished community center, on tribal lands in Aquinnah, into a Class II gaming facility.
The commission’s actions confirm the tribe’s right to conduct gaming on its existing trust lands on Martha’s Vineyard, and any new lands that may be taken into trust on the mainland, the tribe said in a press release issued by the Seattle, Washington law firm of Garvey, Schubert, Barer.
“The tribe has consistently asserted that we have the right to game on our lands in Aquinnah,” tribe chairman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais said in a statement. “These approvals affirm our position. We are thrilled.”
Ms. Andrews-Maltais said in a press release issued Tuesday morning that the tribe would move forward with its plans to convert the unused building into a temporary gaming facility that could include bingo and poker.
“As the People of the First Light, we are responsible for preserving the atmosphere and beauty of the Island,” Ms. Andrews-Maltais said. “Any gaming facility we operate will blend in with the rest of the Island, and the tribe will work with local businesses to ensure the casino’s positive economic impact on our neighbors in the larger Island community.”
The press statement said that on October 25, the NIGC’s general counsel issued a legal opinion concluding that the existing trust lands qualify for gaming under the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA). And on October 22, the NIGC acknowledged the tribe’s facility license for the Aquinnah site.
The tribe said it has renewed its request to negotiate a Class III gaming compact with the Patrick administration “which previously refused to negotiate with Aquinnah, on the mistaken belief that the tribe had given up any rights to game.”
The news that the tribe has received a favorable analysis from the gaming commission comes less than one week before tribe elections. Ms. Andrews-Maltais faces a challenge from former tribe administrator Tobias Vanderhoop.
Class II gaming encompasses high stakes bingo, poker, pull-tab cards and associated electronic games that do not require coin slots. Unlike Class III gaming, which encompasses all types of gaming and requires a tribe-state agreement, tribes may regulate Class II gaming on their own lands without state authority, as long as the state in which the tribe is located permits that type of gaming.
Not clear is whether the gaming commission opinion trumps the Settlement Act that led to federal recognition for the tribe. Governor Deval Patrick has taken the position that the tribe waived its rights to gaming.
The community center became the latest chip in the high stakes game surrounding casino gaming in Massachusetts in May 2012, when tribe members at a general membership meeting voted to use their long unfinished community center for Class II gaming.
The town of Aquinnah takes the view, outlined in a seven-page opinion dated April 27, 2012, that the Wampanoag Tribal Council of Gay Head Inc. cannot operate a gaming casino in Aquinnah.
Town counsel Ron Rappaport said the lands described in the Settlement Act are subject to the zoning regulations in effect at that time. “The town’s zoning bylaw, as of that date, does not allow a casino, gambling facility, or other gaming activities as permissible uses,” he said in his opinion.
Lawyers for the tribe have taken the position that the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) supersedes the Settlement Act, as it relates to any gaming activity by the tribe.
The shell of the building where the tribe would house its Class II gaming facility was built, at taxpayer expense, by Air Force reservists. It has remained unfinished for more than nine years.
In the summer of 2004, two teams of reservists traveled from their home base, Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, to Aquinnah to begin erecting the steel frame for a new community center building for the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head.
They were followed by members of the 908th civil engineering squadron, part of the Air Lift Wing based in Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama. In all, over six weeks, three squadrons of approximately 20 reservists in civil engineering groups worked on the project.
For years, the 6,200-square-foot structure, that was to include a gymnasium, kitchen facilities, and meeting space, remained unfinished and open to the weather, despite an agreement under which the tribe was to complete the remaining 20 percent of the project.
At the time of the initial construction, the Air Force said it was not at liberty to provide information about the cost of the project. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development gave a $500,000 grant. The Bureau of Indian Affairs added $200,000 for road work.
by Nelson Sigelman