The Wampanoag Tribe of Aquinnah announced Tuesday that it intends within months to open the state’s first casino, on tribal land on Martha’s Vineyard, delivering another shock to an emerging Massachusetts casino industry that has become wildly unpredictable of late.
Governor Deval Patrick signaled last evening that he would try to block the tribe’s gambling plans, holding to a longstanding position by state officials that the island tribe lacks the right to build a casino on the island, a world-
renowned summer resort.
But in a new legal analysis, which the tribe released Tuesday, federal officials said in October that the tribe did not give up rights to develop a casino on its Vineyard land, as the state has long contended.
Around the island Tuesday, residents offered mixed opinions about the prospect of a gambling hall hitting their sleepy community. Some looked forward to the possible economic benefits and anticipated going there themselves. Others groaned about a development that could attract even more out-of-towners, especially during the peaceful off season.
The tribe tried to dispel fears of Caesars Palace cropping up on Gay Head cliffs, promising a modest development off Black Brook Road, on the western end of an island known for nature, a relaxed summer vibe, and presidential vacations, most recently by the Clintons and the Obamas.
“It’s going to be modest, because that’s who we are, and we want it to be complementary to the island and the island aesthetics,” said the tribe’s chairwoman, Cheryl Andrews-Maltais.
The Aquinnah pledged to move ahead with a plan to convert an unfinished tribal community center into a temporary gambling hall “as soon as possible,” with an eye toward building a small, permanent “boutique casino” on tribal land. The building planned for the temporary casino is about 6,200 square feet, Andrews-Maltais said.
“We’re looking to generate revenue in order to provide for programs and services and not to burden ourselves with an extraordinarily heavy debt,” she said.
The Aquinnah have waged a long battle with state officials over tribal gambling rights, which is probably not over.
Tribal gambling is approved and regulated under federal law, the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, known as IGRA. Federally recognized tribes, such as the Aquinnah, generally can host gambling as a means of economic development, without a state license.
But Massachusetts officials have long held that the Aquinnah gave up their federal gaming rights in a land settlement in the 1980s, when the tribe agreed to abide by state law on its sovereign territory. Under state law, a limited number of commercial casinos will be licensed by the state gambling commission; the Aquinnah did not apply for a state license.
Last night, Patrick’s chief legal counsel, Kate Cook, reiterated the state’s longtime position: “The Aquinnah’s Land Claims Settlement Act, and the related settlement agreement, acknowledges, preserves and protects the Commonwealth’s authority to regulate gaming both on the Aquinnah’s land in Gay Head and on any after-acquired land within Massachusetts.”
Not so, say the Aquinnah.
The tribe turned to the federal government for clarification of its rights, and on Tuesday unveiled a new legal analysis from Eric Shepard, acting general counsel of the National Indian Gaming Commission, the federal regulatory agency that oversees tribal gambling.
“It is my opinion that the specified lands [on the Vineyard] are Indian lands as defined by IGRA and are eligible for gaming,” Shepard wrote to the tribe, according to a copy of the 5-page letter, dated Oct. 25, provided by the Aquinnah.
“We felt it was really necessary to get those determinations through the federal system so there was absolute clarity so we can start all over again with some real negotiations with our rights well in hand,” Andrews-Maltais said.
The Rev. Richard McGowan, a Boston College casino expert, said the tribe appears to have a strong position. “I don’t see where the governor can stop it, to be quite blunt,” he said.
McGowan said the Vineyard is probably not a lucrative casino market, though the tribe may be successful with a small casino. “I guess they’re thinking, for lack of a better term, of a high-class, Monte Carlo-type facility,” he said.
The tribe insisted it has all necessary approvals to immediately open what federal tribal gambling law calls a Class 2 facility, which could offer games such as high-stakes bingo, poker, and certain varieties of slot machines.
“There is nothing more that we need from any federal agency in order to proceed with the opening of the Class 2 facility,” said Scott Crowell, the tribe’s lawyer. To run a wider variety of Las Vegas-style games, the tribe must negotiate with Patrick on an agreement known as a compact. In general, compacts provide tribes certain benefits in exchange for a share of gambling revenue.
The Aquinnah formally asked Tuesday to open negotiations with the Patrick administration, “which previously refused to negotiate with Aquinnah on the mistaken belief that the tribe had given up any rights to game,” the tribe stated.
In its letter to Patrick, the tribe said: “With the question of the eligibility of our lands qualifying under IGRA resolved, we hope that our two governments can now return to the negotiation table and work out a fair agreement under applicable federal law.”
Patrick’s office “will review the tribe’s renewed request closely and in good faith and proceed accordingly,” Cook said in a statement.
In the meantime, the tribe is evaluating “many options” for potential partners in developing an island casino, Andrews-Maltais said.
The Aquinnah, based on the island, are a separate tribal government from the Mashpee Wampanoag, who are seeking federal approval to build a casino in Taunton. The Mashpee have a different set of legal challenges to overcome, primarily the fact that they do not control any sovereign Indian land. Tribal casinos can only be built on Native American reservations or land held in federal trust on a tribe’s behalf.
The Aquinnah anticipate federal lawsuits may be filed to block their casino plans, but are confident the tribe will prevail in court, said Crowell.
“We believe with that with the United States behind us, such litigation would be very difficult and likely would be short-lived,” Crowell said.Martine Powers of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Mark Arsenault can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @bostonglobemark.