Update: 7-06-2015

The following is an updated and corrected version of a story we ran yesterday.

The Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe has said they plan to continue with the re-purposing of an unfinished community center into a Class II bingo casino on Martha’s Vineyard.

Tribal chairman Tobias Vanderhoop told the local Vineyard Gazette, “The property has been transferred to the Aquinnah Gaming Corporation,” he said. “So they are making preparations to move forward with the project. Under the IGRA  we have federal rights and the tribe has moved through the process to get all the appropriate (approvals) at the federal level to move forward. With previous votes of the citizens of the tribe, and tribal government, yes, we are moving.”

The case is labyrinthine due to timing, laws, agreements, opinions, and rulings by previous judges, federal agencies, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and the U.S. Congress. Elements of the fight date back to the 1970’s when the tribe sued the town of Gay Head (now called Aquinnah) claiming rights to certain of their aboriginal lands located within the town. A settlement was reached by the tribe in 1983 with the town’s taxpayer’s association, the town, and the state.

The settlement decreed about 400 acres of the land would be deeded to the tribe on conditions that included giving up other land and water rights and submission to local and state zoning laws. This, according to legal opinions and a 1999 Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling issued when the tribe built a shellfish hatchery without a building permit from the town.

The state legislature endorsed the 1983 agreement in 1985, and in 1987 a federal law was passed in relation to the agreement that said that the lands were subject to state laws, “including those laws and regulations which prohibit or regulate the conduct of bingo or any other game of chance.”

In 1988 the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) was passed into law and the tribe maintains that the IGRA supersedes the settlement. They also contend that their authority to construct and operate a Class II casino on their lands has been affirmed by the  Interior Solicitor and the National Indian Gaming Commission.

Construction on the community center was started in 2004 but the interior of the building was never completed. In order to complete the building as a casino, rather than a community center, the tribe will need to repay a $600,000 grant from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Agency that was used for the first phase of construction.

In early June it was announced that a hearing date had been set in federal court to settle a suit brought by the commonwealth in 2013 to stop the project. The town and Aquinnah/Gay Head Community Association are also suing the tribe.

Tribal members are split on supporting the casino proposal but it has passed referendum and survived an initiative to overturn it.

The tribe and casino plan should not be confused with the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe nor their efforts to build the First Light Resort and Casino in Taunton on the mainland.