Massachusetts Bingo Hall in Dispute

The Wampanoag Tribe’s attempt to open a bingo hall (l.) on Martha’s Vineyard is facing opposition, not only from outside the tribe, but from tribal members. An injunction was issued last week to halt work on the project.

The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) has announced its intention to ultimately serve alcohol at the Class II casino that it hopes to open on Martha’s Vineyard, although a judge last week issued a preliminary injunction to stop further work on the facility.

The tribe adopted a Liquor Control Ordinance and published it in the Federal Register, something it is required to do to make a tribal law official. The ordinance was approved by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, according to an attorney for the tribe.

The ordinance not only applies to the casino—if it opens—but spells out the limited conditions under which alcohol can be sold on tribal land, at venues such as hotels, concerts and golf courses.

Meanwhile the tribe is embroiled in lawsuit with the state of Massachusetts, the Aquinnah/Gay Head Community Association and the town of Aquinnah have challenged the tribe right to open the casino.

A former tribal chairman, Donald Widdiss, called the ordinance “very irresponsible,” and said that it went against longstanding tradition against alcohol on the reservation.

Although in most cases courts have upheld a tribe’s ability to ignore state and local laws, they have made an exception for alcohol. In 1983 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that when alcohol is served on tribal lands that it has to be consistent with state law.

The ordinance the tribe published said, “Liquor may be offered for sale and may be served on tribal lands only at tribal gaming facilities, and at tribal hotels, concert venues, and golf courses. Any other liquor sales are strictly prohibited.”

In Boston U.S. District Court Judge F. Dennis Saylor issued the preliminary injunction to stop work on converting the unfinished community center into a bingo hall. The judge noted that the granting of the injunction should not be interpreted to mean that he has decided to rule against the tribe in the case of whether it can build the casino.

The judge added that if he ultimately rules that the tribe can build the casino that it would still be required to obtain a building permit from the town.

Town attorney Ronald H. Rappaport commented after the ruling, “Until this court declares otherwise, the status quo is that the tribe must comply with town zoning and land-use laws, and this status quo be maintained.”

In court papers Rappaport had accused the tribe of flouting “specific laws intended to protect public safety” and quoted the tribe as admitting that it doesn’t have its own building inspector or health inspector.

Tribal leaders, while disappointed at the ruling, said they were confident of ultimately prevailing in the case.

Cheryl Andrews Maltais, head of Aquinnah Wampanoag Gaming Corporation, which will run the casino if it is built, commented, “We’re looking forward to arguments on the merits of the case. We’re going to stay focused on that.”

The tribe is divided on the issue of building the casino that would have electronic bingo games. Some members, led by former tribal Chairman Beverly Wright are gathering signatures to force a vote on the issue at the tribe’s general membership meeting in August.

Andrews-Maltais wants to generate income with the casino to provide health care to the tribe’s elderly. “I’ve lost enough elders in our community that shouldn’t have gone to their grave” she told the Wall Street Journal.

Martha’s Vineyard, an island south of Cape Code, has a permanent population of 17,000 but a visitor population of sometimes three times that during the summer.

Of the tribe’s 1,300 members, 300 live on the island, with the rest making their homes elsewhere in the Bay State or out of state. Some of the 300 members who live on the island say the push for the casino come from those who don’t live in Aquinnah.

Those who do want the casino say they have a legal right to do so, in spite of signing a land settlement agreement adopted by Congress in the 1980s in which they promised to abide by state and local land use rules. The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 abrogated that agreement, they say, and cite as their authority opinions from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the National Indian Gaming Commission.

The state has sued to uphold the original agreement.

After the state passed the 2011 gaming expansion law, the tribe attempted unsuccessfully to negotiate a tribal state gaming compact with then-Governor Deval Patrick, who cited the 1987 Settlement Act of Congress as the reason for declining to negotiate. Earlier this year the tribe announced that it planned to repurpose an unfinished community center as a Class II casino with up to 300 machines.

On July 6 the town of Aquinnah sent the tribe a cease and desist letter and followed it with the request for an injunction from the federal court.

Town administrator Adam Wilson last week told the Wall Street Journal, “You have to scratch your head and say who in their right mind is going to travel to the western edge of the island to play bingo?”