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Tribe on Martha’s Vineyard gets backing of Justice Department for casino

The Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe gained lands on Martha’s Vineyard in a 1980s agreement.
The Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe gained lands on Martha’s Vineyard in a 1980s agreement. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

The Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe has gained the support of the US Justice Department in its decadeslong effort to open a casino on Martha’s Vineyard.

The Justice Department last week filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the tribe, which is appealing a US District Court decision in November. In that ruling, a federal judge said the tribe could not assert the right to run a casino because it had not truly acted like a sovereign government.

In its brief, the Justice Department wrote that it is seeking to ensure the federally recognized tribe is treated fairly and noted that the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs and the National Indian Gaming Commission have said that the tribe should be allowed to operate a casino.


Aquinnah, a small town on Martha’s Vineyard, opposes the casino. Ron Rappaport, a lawyer for the town, said “the brief does not add anything new.”

“The same arguments have been considered before and rejected,” he said Monday.

Tobias Vanderhoop, the tribal chairman, said on Monday “the tribe is pleased to have the support of the United States” and the brief “reaffirms our right to govern our ancestral tribal lands.”

He has asserted that the tribe wants to be treated the same as hundreds of other tribes that have opened casinos in the last 25 years.

How much weight the appeals court will give to the government’s 36-page brief is hard to predict, said Dennis Whittlesey, a Washington, D.C., lawyer with more than 40 years of experience with Native American legal issues.

“It’s something the court would have to consider, whether to accept the brief’s argument,” he said. “There is some weight to it. But will it be dispositive? No, the case is for the appeals court to decide.”

In the November decision, Judge F. Dennis Saylor IV ruled that the Aquinnah failed to demonstrate “sufficient actual manifestations” of government authority. The absence of such a demonstration, he wrote, meant “the tribe cannot build a gaming facility on” its land.


The tribe’s campaign to open a slots parlor has been overshadowed by larger casino projects, but a marketing study commissioned by the tribe found it could earn close to $5 million a year from a casino equipped with 300 slot machines.

The dispute over the Aquinnah’s rights dates back to the 1980s, when the tribe negotiated a settlement with local landowners for the return of hundreds of acres they claimed had been taken from them. In return, the Aquinnah agreed to abide by state and local laws that “prohibit or regulate the conduct of bingo or any other game of chance.”

Congress ratified the settlement in 1987, and in doing so granted the tribe the status of a sovereign nation. But the next year, Congress passed comprehensive regulations about what federally recognized tribes could do on their lands. Those regulations have since been interpreted to allow tribes to run casinos without state or local interference.

Sean P. Murphy can be reached at smurphy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.