Wampanoag Tribe of Aquinnah

The Wampanoag Tribe of Aquinnah in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts wants to build a casino on what they say is sovereign land (Image source: Boston Globe)

While mainstream gaming companies struggle for community support and regulatory approval for their Massachusetts casinos, one Native American tribe says they’ll beat everyone to the punch. The Wampanoag Tribe of Aquinnah is claiming that they have won federal approval to open a casino on Martha’s Vineyard, where they have tribal land. The plan would see an unfinished community center turned into a temporary casino until a more permanent venue could be built.

And while most of the focus in Massachusetts has been on votes and approvals for the three state-issued casino licenses, there has been another fight brewing behind the scenes over whether the Aquinnah has the right to even build a casino on their land.

Legal Discrepancies

According to federal law, Native American gaming is controlled by the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, or IGRA. That law allows federally recognized tribes – including the Aquinnah – to host gambling without applying for state casino licenses.

But Massachusetts has disputed whether the Aquinnah could do so on their land. The state says that the tribe gave up their rights under IGRA when they signed a land settlement deal in the 1980s, in which the tribe agreed to abide by state law on their territory.

Now, the Aquinnah believe they have enough weight behind their claims to move forward with their casino plans. They recently received a legal opinion from the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC) that appears to take their position, allowing them to build and operate a casino on their own land.

“It is my opinion that the specified lands are Indian lands as defined by IGRA and are eligible for gaming,” wrote NIGC general counsel Eric Shepard.

And just this week,  an 18-page legal analysis released by the U.S. Department of the Interior office of the solicitor – dated Aug. 23 – gives yet more support to the Aquinnah’s claims that they may build a casino on their sovereign land.

Tribe Gets Legal Opinion in Their Favor

The tribe says that these opinions should add weight to what they’ve been saying all along: that the federal law regulating Indian gaming was the prevailing factor in their dispute with the state.

“We have continued to assert and try to explain to people the difference between federal Indian law and how it relates to us, but it seemed it was going to take a lot more convincing,” said Wampanoag tribe chairwoman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais. “We felt it was really necessary to get those determinations through the federal system so there was absolute clarity so we can start all over again with some real negotiations with our rights well in hand.”

While the tribe hopes that they can soon open a “Class 2” facility – one that would allow for poker, some slot machines, and bingo – it won’t be happening overnight.

“I would love to be able to set up a poker table tomorrow, but that’s not going to work,” Andrews-Maltais said. “It’s going to take several months.”

If the Aquinnah decide they want to open a larger casino with a full suite of games, they’ll need to enter into a compact with the state of Massachusetts. Despite the contentious nature of their relationship with the state over the issue to date, the tribe still says they’d like to enter into negotiations with Governor Deval Patrick.

“With the question of the eligibility of our lands qualifying under IGRA resolved, we hope that our two governments can now return to the negotiation table and work out a fair agreement under applicable federal law,” the tribe said in a statement.