The Aquinnah Wampanoag Indian tribe faces firm opposition to its plans to open a casino on Martha’s Vineyard from a powerful group of private landowners, the town of Aquinnah, and the state. But on Sunday, the tribal leaders who favor an on-island casino won a significant victory at the ballot box in the face of opposition from a different quarter: fellow tribal members.
Tribal opponents to the on-island casino in recent weeks gathered enough signatures from tribal members to force a special election asking one question: Should the tribe repeal its leaders’ votes to open a casino on tribal lands on the island?
Opponents to the on-island casino needed the votes of at least two-thirds of those who cast ballots to win the referendum and block the on-island casino. They failed.
With an evenly split vote of 110 to 110, on-island casino opponents fell well below the super majority vote required under the tribe’s constitution. To win, the opponents need at least 146 votes.
“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,” Tobias Vanderhoop, the tribal chairman, said in a statement released after the balloting.
Beverly Wright, a former tribal chairwoman who helped organized the opposition to the casino, acknowledged the deep divide over the issue and said she still considers a casino on the island a threat to the tribe’s sacred lands.
“This vote shows how evenly the tribe is split on this issues,” she said Sunday evening. “What kind of leadership does this show? The leaders have to get more information out to members. Everything so far has been all hush-hush.”
Wright said another referendum to block an on-island casino is possible in a year.
“We don’t think a casino fits on Martha’s Vineyard or on tribal land,” she said.
Wright said a casino would require upgrades in water and sewer utilities, widening of roads, more parking, and other changes to the reservation.
“We don’t want that kind of pressure on our homelands,” she said. “We only have so many acres.”
The Aquinnah leaders say a marketing study commissioned by the tribe shows that it could earn close to $5 million a year from a casino. Last month, the tribe announced plans to convert a 6,500-square-foot community center on its reservation into a casino.
Vanderhoop in court filings has portrayed a casino as the best economic development option available to the tribe.
“The development of a gaming operation is the best option we currently have to create a revenue stream outside of federal funding,” Vanderhoop wrote in the filings.
Gambling revenue would help fund elders programs, youth programs, a court system, law enforcement, education, health care, cultural activities, housing, historic preservation, and environmental protection, he said.
The vote comes against the backdrop of a major battle in federal court over the tribe’s right to open a casino on the island.
Last week, a lawyer for the Aquinnah argued the tribe’s plans to operate a modestly sized casino are as legally valid for this small band of Indians as they are for every tribe in America, including the owners of the behemoth Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun casinos.
Scott Crowell, the tribe’s lawyer, said the US Supreme Court decades ago established the right of tribes to operate gambling facilities and Congress followed by enacting a law in 1988 that spelled out in detail how tribes may exercise that right.
But lawyers for those opposing a casino countered that the right to open a casino does not apply to the Aquinnah. The lawyers said the tribe freely gave away that right in a 1983 deal that granted the Aquinnah hundreds of acres of disputed land on the island in exchange for the Aquinnah’s promise to not open a casino. Congress enacted that deal into law in 1987.
US District Court Judge F. Dennis Saylor IV, after hearing from both sides, said in court last week he would take some time before rendering a decision at a later date.