Cheryl Andrews-Maltais serves as chairwoman of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe. Photo Senate Committee on Indian Affairs

Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe lands big partner for gaming project

Though plans remain in development, the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe is showing that it is serious about Indian gaming.

The People of the First Light have partnered with the Chickasaw Nation to open a Class II gaming facility in Massachusetts. The Chickasaws are one of the biggest players in the industry, operating the largest casino in the world, as well as the most number of casinos in Indian Country.

"We are beyond pleased that the right of the Aquinnah Wampanoag to conduct gaming on our tribal lands has been unequivocally affirmed by both the federal appeals court and Supreme Court of the United States," Chairwoman Andrews-Maltais said in a press release on Wednesday. "Now we look forward to partnering with another tribe to bring economic development to Aquinnah and Martha’s Vineyard. The Chickasaw Nation’s success speaks for itself and we are honored to be in partnership with them.”

The Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe secured the right to engage in gaming on its homelands following years of litigation. The final hurdle was cleared in January, when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to entertain an appeal of the tribe's victory.

Yet the tribe hasn't rushed to resume work on a stalled facility on the reservation. Plans initially called for the casino to be open this summer.

The Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe was planning to turn an unfinished community center in Aquinnah, Massachusetts, into a gaming facility but work has not resumed at the site despite a major court victory. Photo courtesy Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah)

But with the Chickasaw Nation's Global Gaming Solutions on board, the project is bound to attract more attention. The firm has played a role in designing, developing and operating more than 30 gaming facilities, including some for other tribes, mainly in Oklahoma.

“Developing gaming and entertainment operations that further the economic development goals of Native American tribes is central to our business charter,” said Skip Seeley, chief executive officer of Global Gaming Solutions. “We are excited to partner with the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe as they launch this project to support the local economy in Martha’s Vineyard and create opportunities for their tribal citizens."

Slot machines, card games and related offerings are legal in Massachusetts but the state -- relying on a faulty interpretation of federal law that has been struck down by the courts -- has refused to negotiate a Class III agreement with the tribe. So plans currently call for Class II games like bingo and electronic versions of bingo to be offered on the island of Martha's Vineyard.

“As the People of the First Light, we are the stewards of our lands, and we’re dedicated to preserving the atmosphere and beauty of the Island,” Andrews-Maltais said. “Any gaming facility we operate will blend in with the rest of the Island, and the tribe will work with local businesses to create a positive economic impact for our neighbors in the larger Island community.”

The state, on the other hand, negotiated a Class III gaming compact with the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe. But plans for the $1 billion First Light Resort and Casino on the Massachusetts mainland remain in limbo due to litigation.

As a result, the Trump administration might be forced to do something unprecedented -- take the tribe's trust lands out of trust. Bipartisan legislation would prevent that from happening but it's about more than just gaming, Chairwoman Jessie Baird said on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.

The tribe's language programs, Baird told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, are located on trust lands that are now at risk.

"We pray that our lands remain in trust so that we may continue this vital work," Baird testified at an oversight hearing on efforts to revitalize Native languages.

In their language, the Wampanoag are known as the People of the First Light, a name that speaks of their presence on the Eastern seaboard, where they are among the first to see the sun rise. They are also known as the first indigenous nation to greet and assist the Pilgrims in the early 1600s. Their homelands include the mainland of Massachusetts in addition to the island of Martha's Vineyard.

1st Circuit Court of Appeals Decision
Massachusetts v. Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) (April 11, 2017)

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