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Aquinnah Tribe struggles with Vineyard vision

Opponents of the casino argue that it would ruin the tranquil beauty of Aquinnah.
Opponents of the casino argue that it would ruin the tranquil beauty of Aquinnah.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

A few miles from the historic brick lighthouse and russet clay cliffs sloping into the sea, Aquinnah’s latest attraction could rise: 250 video slot machines inside a 10,000-square-foot aluminum-frame building with a stretched fabric roof.

The Aquinnah Cliffs Casino would include a beer-and-wine bar, but no restaurant. Food trucks would park outside.

Leaders of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) had hoped to open the electronic bingo hall this summer, in time to attract the droves of tourists pouring onto Martha’s Vineyard.

But the project has stalled amid continued opposition from Aquinnah town officials and some local members of the tribe itself, who argue a casino will ruin the town’s tranquil beauty and close-knit feel.

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“No one comes here to gamble, man,” said Jeffrey Madison, the Aquinnah town administrator.

A tribe member, Madison supported the Aquinnah Wampanoag’s efforts to build a casino on the mainland, in Southeastern Massachusetts, in the 1990s. But he believes a casino in Aquinnah, tucked at the western end of the island near Menemsha Pond and accessible by a two-lane country road, will flop because gamblers have other, more convenient options on the mainland.

“If you can go to Springfield, or you can go to Plainville, or you can go to Everett, you’re not going to get on a boat to go to Martha’s Vineyard to push buttons on a slot machine,” he said.

Tribal leaders disagree.

They predict the casino will attract throngs of gamblers, generating enough revenue to sustain 100 jobs and fund much-needed educational, health, and elder services for tribe members.

To draw tourists, the tribe plans to run shuttle buses from the ferry terminals in Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs, said Naomi Carney, a member of the tribal council and vice chair of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Gaming Corporation, which is overseeing the project.

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She said she hopes the casino will open this fall, despite continued legal objections from the town, which recently went back to court and has been battling the casino for years.

“I wish they would just leave us alone and let us take care of our tribal people,” Carney said. “That’s all we’re trying to do, is give our tribal members a fighting chance. . . . We were there first. Get off our backs.”

Federally recognized in 1987, the tribe has 1,364 members — including 319 on Martha’s Vineyard as a whole. Aquinnah is home to 311 residents, including 98 tribe members.

Over the last three decades, tribal leaders have tried unsuccessfully to build a casino in New Bedford, Lakeville, and Freetown, before a federal court ruled in 2017 that the tribe has the right to build a gambling parlor with electronic bingo games on its tribal land in Aquinnah.

Still, some tribe members who live in Aquinnah complain the project is being forced on them by the vast majority of tribe members who live off the island.

“Most of these people are not from here, and there are no Wampanoags from this town who want it,” said Buddy Vanderhoop, a tribe member and lifelong Aquinnah resident who owns Tomahawk Fishing Charters. “They’re people from New Bedford and there are more of them than us and, at the end of the day, they can leave all this mess in town and I live here, and I have to live with this crap for the rest of my life. It’s a travesty.”

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Carney, the tribal council member, who lives in New Bedford, said tribe members have voted for a casino at least five times since 2010.

“There are a few tribal members who oppose it, but the overwhelming vote is one to go forward,” she said. “And everybody’s vote counts. We are all tribal members and we have been trying to get rid of that on-island and off-island mentality for years.”

After the federal appeals court recognized the tribe’s right to an electronic bingo hall in 2017, the town appealed to the Supreme Court, which declined to review the case last year. That paved the way for construction to begin.

In February, the tribe cleared about five acres of its land for the project, opting for a less costly aluminum-frame structure rather than a permanent building that could force the tribe into debt.

The construction activity prompted town officials to demand in federal court that the tribe obtain local building permits. Since then, construction has essentially halted.

Madison said the town doesn’t want to stop the casino; it just wants to prepare for traffic and policing around it.

“We just want to know what the hell is going on so we can plan for it,” he said.

The tribe argues that — as a sovereign entity — it doesn’t need local building permits but will follow the health and safety requirements of its own tribal government and the National Indian Gaming Commission, said Scott Crowell and Lael Echo-Hawk, the tribe’s lawyers.

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A hearing on the dispute is scheduled for May 31 in federal court in Boston.

Meanwhile, further litigation may be looming.

In March, the town hired Douglas J. Kline, a lawyer at Goodwin Procter, who argued in a letter that because the property was purchased by the tribe in 2014, it was not entered into trust before 1988, as required by federal Indian gaming law.

Tribal lawyers pushed back. They contend that even if tribal lands were taken into trust after 1988, gambling is still allowed if those lands touch existing trust lands.

Carney noted that wealthy summer residents have been allowed to build sprawling vacation homes on the Vineyard.

“How come they can build 10,000- or 15,000-square-foot homes, but they’re sticking their noses in our 10,000-square-foot facility?” Carney said.

But Madison said that if the tribe prevails, the town — dotted with scrubby pines, blue ponds, and stone walls — will lose its isolated, rural character.

“What would a neon sign look like that says, ‘Gambling Here,’ with a big, flashing arrow?” Madison said. “Does that make sense?”


Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.