Any plan to build a casino on Martha’s Vineyard is sure to run into some serious opposition, and the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe still faces plenty of fights ahead if their plans to build are to become a reality.
But on Sunday, those in favor of the casino won at least one key fight: a battle within the tribe itself.
A vote seeking to repeal the decision to open a casino on tribal lands fell short of a required two-thirds majority, allowing for tribal leaders and other casino supporters to continue with plans to build an on-island Martha’s Vineyard casino.
The vote ended in a deadlock, with 110 voting for the casino and 110 against it.
“The will of our citizens, based on the result of today’s vote, is that there will be no change to the present course of the Tribe,” said tribal chairman Tobias Vanderhoop.
Casino Would Be Located on Community Center Site
The proposed plan would be to convert an unfinished community center on the Aquinnah Wampanoag reservation into a small casino.
Some tribal leaders say that studies suggest it could bring in up to $5 million a year for the tribe.
But opponents say that a casino wouldn’t make sense for the tribal lands or Martha’s Vineyard in general. The most prominent opposition came from those tribal members who live on the island itself.
“This is going to drastically affect our way of life,” said Jason Widdiss, who lives in tribal housing near where the casino would be located. “Literally, this casino would be at the end of my road.”
Tribal gambling corporation chairwoman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais expressed frustration over the process. Opponents of the casino have already forced several votes; each time, they have fallen far short of stopping the project from moving forward.
“We’ve already been through this,” Andrews-Maltais said. “This is the only way that we feel we can close the gap between the haves and the have-nots. It’s time for folks to begin looking at our resources as shared resources.”
Tribe Battling Over Casino in Federal Court
The battle within the tribe is just the first of many that will have to be won if a casino is ever to be built by the tribe.
The state of Massachusetts is against the idea, as is the town of Aquinnah and many local landowners.
The argument against the casino from these groups is based on the 1983 agreement that granted the tribe about 500 acres of land on Martha’s Vineyard.
That agreement specifically prohibits the tribe from offering gambling on the site.
However, supporters of the casino say that as a federally-recognized tribe, they have the right to offer limited gambling on their lands. They want to offer electronic gaming, and are not proposing to allow poker or table games at their casino.
A federal judge heard those arguments on Wednesday, and will rule on the case sometime in the near future.
However, many members of the Aquinnah Wampanoag want the tribe to be able to determine its own destiny, regardless of what that decision might be.
“This is not what I picture us doing,” said Bettina Washington, the historic preservation officer for the tribe. “However, I’ll defend our right to game. It’s our decisions whether we are going to game or not.”