The logo of the Aquinnah Cliffs Casino, the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe's forthcoming gaming facility. Image: Aquinnah Cliffs Casino

Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe back in court to defend gaming rights

Despite having its gaming rights affirmed by the highest court in the land, the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe is being forced to defend its sovereignty again.

The tribe broke ground on a long-awaited Class II gaming facility in February. But local officials in Massachusetts claim the tribe needs their approval to continue work even though they lack jurisdiction over the project.

The standoff has led to the loss of electricity at the site of the Aquinnah Cliffs Casino, according to news reports. The tribe hasn't been able to regain power and construction has halted temporarily as a result.

“The tribe has been deprived of electricity to continue construction, which is integral to the tribe being able to offer gaming on its Indian lands,” a court filing reads, The Vineyard Gazette reports.

The tribe's land claim settlement act was approved by Congress in 1987. The law includes a provision that places the reservation under state and local laws.

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

A year later, Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. The law recognizes the tribe's right to engage in gaming on the reservation, effectively repealing the restrictive provision of the land claim settlement, the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2017.

The town of Aquinnah and the state of Massachusetts asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the decision but the justices refused to entertain their petition. As a result, the 1st Circuit precedent was affirmed.

“Despite having lost at the First Circuit, the town, based upon its unfounded fear of an Indian tribe engaging in commercial activities to improve its economic condition and the conditions of its tribal members, now asks this court to put the town in a position of being able to interfere with or prevent the tribe from exercising its sovereign right to govern gaming activities on the land,” the tribe said in a court filing, The Vineyard Gazette reports.

According to news reports, the town of Aquinnah is attempting to differentiate the outcome of the case with its new demands. The town claims the prior decision only addressed whether IGRA applies to the reservation, and does not relieve the tribe of its obligations to comply with local laws.

“Since the tribe never raised the permitting issue on appeal, in its decision, the First Circuit addressed only whether the IGRA applies to the settlement lands and whether it displaced local and state authority over gaming on those lands,” the town said in a court filing, The Martha's Vineyard Times reports.

The tribe has been hoping to open the 10,000 square-foot casino this summer. The project is being developed by Global Gaming Solutions, a subsidiary of the Chickasaw Nation.

The Chickasaws, based in Oklahoma, were pioneers in the Class II industry. Class II games, consisting of bingo and electronic forms of bingo, are not subject to state or local jurisdiction under IGRA.

“We remain committed to bringing positive economic development to our tribe, the town of Aquinnah and our neighbors in the larger island community,” Chairwoman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais said in a press release after the groundbreaking in February. “At the start of construction, we bring to life the vision for this entertainment experience. We look forward to the creation of new jobs, supporting the local economy and local businesses and bringing a new and exciting entertainment venue to our island."

A hearing has been scheduled for May 20 in Boston.

Read More on the Story
Wampanoag Tribe and Town Spar in Court Again (The Vineyard Gazette May 2, 2019)
Tribe and town back in court over casino project (The Martha's Vineyard Times April 30, 2019)

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

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