Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe Wins Right to Build Electronic Bingo Hall on Martha’s Vineyard

Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe Wins Right to Build Electronic Bingo Hall on Martha’s Vineyard
The bingo hall would be housed in this unused community center.

The Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head continues its attempt to bring a bingo parlor to Martha’s Vineyard, the island located off Cape Cod in Southern Massachusetts. The tribe won an important decision in the US Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit of Boston in 2015, which gave it the right to construct a casino on tribal lands on the island.

A lower court decision earlier ruled that the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe had not displayed “governmental power” over their lands, a decision by US District Judge F. Dennis Saylor IV kept the tribe from building a casino on Martha’s Vineyard. The original plan was to convert the tribe’s vacant and community center into an electronic bingo hall.

IGRA Stipulations

Under terms of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA), a tribe must establishment jurisdiction over an area to be considered a sovereign reservation. Judge Saylor also claimed that the IGRA did not supersede the Massachusetts Settlement Act of 1987.

Normally, a tribe does not have to submit to state or local approval in order to offer Class II gaming (electronic bingo slots). Instead, they are seen as sovereign territory which can open gaming operations, so long as they agree to a gaming compact with the state authority — a compact which gives the state the right to collect taxes beyond regulatory maintenance fees only if concessions by the state are made.

Massachusetts Settlement Act of 1987

In the case, of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head, the 1987 Act gave them reservation status, but only if they agreed to submit local zoning codes and other regulators to the state. The state argued the 1987 Act allowed the Aquinnah Wampanoag the dignity of a sovereign reservation, but gave the state the right to block any gambling which took place on tribal grounds.

Thus, when the tribe began renovating a 6500-square foot community center into a potential gambling hall in 2013, the state filed a lawsuit. Judge Saylor called for work on the facility to cease. In June 2016, the US Department of Justice filed a brief on behalf of the tribe, overruling the judge’s verdict. The DOJ said the IGRA “implicitly repeals the Settlement Act’s provision for state and local jurisdiction over gaming.

Judge Torruella Overrules Judge Saylor

In a Monday ruling by the appellate court, Judge Juan Torruella said Judge Saylor’s ruling was incorrect. Judge Torruella wrote, “[T]he Tribe: has established a housing program that receives HUD assistance, and has built approximately 30 units of housing under that program; has entered into an intergovernmental agreement with the EPA; operates a health care clinic with the aid of the Indian Health Service; administers a program for education with scholarships financed with Bureau of Indian Affairs funding; administers social services with a human services director responsible for child welfare work; administers conservation policy…and administers a public safety program.”

If the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe’s gaming facility is ever completed and opened, the tribe estimates it will generate $4.5 million a year in cash. The tribe believes it will create an additional 100 permanent jobs.

Billion-Dollar Massachusetts Casinos

Such an operation is minor in comparison to the $1.9 billion Wynn Boston Harbor in everett and the billion-dollar MGM Springfield in Western Massachusetts, but officials are concerned about the precedent it could set. In other states, tribal bingo halls eventually gave way to full casino gaming. Officials thus are concerned not so much about a small bingo hall on the reservation, but the inclusion of a casino on the same grounds in 5 or 10 years.

Martha’s Vineyard is a small island off the coast of Massachusetts, south of Cape Code and west of Nantucket Island. Martha’s Vineyard’s population is about 16,000 resident, but in the summer months, over 100,000 people flock to the island’s beaches and touristy areas. The Kennedy family first made Martha’s Vineyard famous beyond New England during the administration of John F. Kennedy, because the family took vacations there. Some on Martha’s Vineyard would not want a casino or even bingo hall ruining the island’s reputation, though the Aquillah Wampanoag Tribe sees a gaming hall as a natural addition, because of the large number of tourists there.

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