Martha’s Vineyard Casino Can Move Forward, Wampanoag Tribe Celebrates Appeals Court’s Ruling

Posted on: April 12, 2017, 01:00h. 

Last updated on: April 12, 2017, 12:05h.

A Martha’s Vineyard casino is likely coming to the Cape Cod affluent island after an appeals court overturned previous rulings that blocked the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head from engaging in gambling.

Martha's Vineyard casino Wampanoag Tribe
After years of legal challenges against the state, the Wampanoag Tribe can move forward with its Martha’s Vineyard casino. (Image: Wampanoag Tribe)

This week, the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston overturned a 2015 decision that prevented the tribe from opening a casino on its sovereign land. The three-judge ruling said the Wampanoag Tribe is a fully functioning Native American group, and has every right to offer gaming on its reservation.

“We are simply thrilled,” Gay Head Chairwoman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais said in a statement. “The decision is exactly on point. This decision affirms our sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the land that has always been ours and solidifies our place in the gaming market.”

The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head has 485 total acres in trust on Martha’s Vineyard’s western tip.

Residents on the island won’t likely embrace the ruling, as many believe a gambling venue will mar the largely tranquil 87-square-mile community. Martha’s Vineyard is only accessibly by boat or air, which raises additional concerns on whether current infrastructure can support a casino.

Legal Debate

The Wampanoag people have inhabited the Massachusetts region for more than 350 years. But its Gay Head tribe, located in the town of Aquinnah on the island’s western edge, was only recognized by the US federal government in 1987.

The sect sued Massachusetts in the early 1980s over land on Martha’s Vineyard that it felt was unjustly taken. The state returned 485 acres to the tribe, but under an agreement, mandated the Gay Head people to abide by state laws that “prohibit or regulate the conduct of bingo or any other game of chance.”

Massachusetts, at least according to the appeals court, violated its end of the bargain when the state legalized gambling in 2011 and authorized three commercial casinos and a slots parlor. The 2011 Expanded Gaming Act essentially voided the 1987 legal contract the Wampanoag’s had with lawmakers in Boston.

Verdict Impact

Across the Vineyard Sound in Taunton, the Mashpee Wampanoag, the only other federally recognized tribe in Massachusetts, is also trying to build a casino. Like Gay Head, that tribe has encountered legal hurdles in obtaining gaming approval.

Last fall, a district judge ruled the Mashpee people couldn’t build a $1 billion casino resort on 151 sovereign acres because the land was wrongly designated by the US Department of the Interior (DOI) in 2015.

The US Supreme Court has determined that only tribes recognized by the federal government in 1934 are eligible to purchase and have new land deemed sovereign under the Indian Reorganization Act. The Mashpee land in question was acquired just two years ago, and the tribe was only recognized in 2007.

The Taunton casino dilemma differs from Gay Head’s in that the Martha’s Vineyard Wampanoag people didn’t buy their land, but simply received it back from the government. Mashpee Wampanoag has asked the DOI to provide further clarification to support its case.

Massachusetts’ Gaming Commission is waiting for the final verdict in Taunton before approving the third and final commercial resort license.