Aquinnah Officials Ask Martha’s Vineyard Commission to Review Gambling Hall Project

Posted on: February 5, 2019, 02:31h. 

Last updated on: February 5, 2019, 06:38h.

The battle over a proposed gambling hall in Aquinnah — located on the remote western end of the upscale Martha’s Vineyard — has reached another turn, as town officials have asked the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) to review the controversial project.

Martha's Vineyard casino gambling hall
The 21-member Martha’s Vineyard Commission is being petitioned to review a potential tribal gaming hall in Aquinnah. (Image: Martha’s Vineyard Commission)

The MVC is a regional land-use planning agency for Martha’s Vineyard Island and the Elizabeth Islands.

The scrutiny comes a year after the US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) ruled the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head could develop a Class II gaming facility on their land in Massachusetts.

But not everyone shares the Supreme Court’s enthusiasm. Harvard legal scholar Alan Dershowitz told Monday the gambling facility “would disturb the tranquility of the vineyard especially since Aquinnah is at the quiet end of the island.”

Delaying Inevitable

In a statement released Tuesday to, Wampanoag Tribal Council Chairwoman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais said, “The Town of Aquinnah is attempting to bait the Martha’s Vineyard Commission into fighting a battle that the town has already lost.”

SCOTUS was clear that the tribe has the unfettered right to develop a Class II gaming facility on tribal trust land. The town is simply trying to delay the inevitable and attempting to defray the cost of frivolous litigation by dragging the MVC into the dispute.”

When asked why the project was sent to the MVC, Jeffrey Madison, Town Administrator for Aquinnah, told “the MVC charter requires it to review all developments in Dukes County of regional impact.”

“Our Board of Selectmen feel that MVC permits are required for this project,” Madison added. “Lands owned by the tribe are subject to MVC oversight.”

Andrews-Maltais reiterated she still wants the state to enter into a Class III compact with the tribe, “which would allow the state and local authorities to have a seat at the negotiation table to address regional issues.” This kind of negotiation has “worked successfully with states and tribes throughout the country,” she said.

Class II gambling typically includes bingo games. Class III games can include slot machines, table games, and other types of gambling commonly found at commercial casinos.

Until the state agrees, the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head “will proceed with a Class II gaming facility that is respectful of our neighbors while also enabling the Tribe to fund its programs without fear of a government shutdown also shutting down the tribal government,” Andrews-Maltais said.   

Tribal Financial Security

David Silverman, a George Washington University historian who has studied the Wampanoag Tribe, told that “both sides of this issue are making reasonable arguments. For more than two centuries, their [the Wampanoag] community has been among the poorest in Massachusetts, largely because of their white neighbors’ appropriation of their land and labor, and discrimination against them in ways too numerous to count.”

The high stakes bingo hall is a small way for them to achieve some financial security and continue the ‘decolonizing’ process of asserting control of their own collective destiny.” Proceeds from bingo games might allow more Wampanoags to return to Aquinnah from the mainland to live permanently, he added.

However, Silverman points out, too, that some island residents worry the bingo hall will increase traffic “on a part of the island that people prize for its rural, bucolic character.”

He notes that some non-Wampanoag landowners paid “top dollar for houses in Aquinnah and Chilmark precisely because they did not want to live or spend the summer among the kinds of crowds associated with other parts of the island and Cape Cod.”