BOSTON (AP)— A Martha's Vineyard-based Indian tribe said Tuesday it had gained federal approval to build a gambling facility on the island, though the state of Massachusetts has long contended that the tribe gave up its gaming rights in a land settlement.
The Wampanoag Tribe of Aquinnah, a federally-recognized tribe, issued a statement saying it planned to move ahead with converting an unfinished community center on tribal lands into a temporary Class II gambling facility. Such a facility could offer high-stakes electronic bingo or poker games and some types of slot machines, but not casino-style table games.
The tribe cited a legal opinion, dated Oct. 25, from Eric Shepard, the acting general counsel of the National Indian Gaming Commission. In the letter, Shepard said the tribe's lands on Martha's Vineyard qualify for limited gambling under the federal law that governs tribal gaming and that the Aquinnah have sufficient legal jurisdiction over the lands.
"The Tribe has consistently asserted that we have the right to game on our lands in Aquinnah," said Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, tribal chairwoman, in a written statement. "These approvals affirm our position. We are thrilled!"
Shepard did not return a message seeking comment.
Martha's Vineyard, an island just south of Cape Cod that is accessible by ferry, is a popular summer tourist destination. President Barack Obama and his family have vacationed several times on the island, as did President Bill Clinton when he was in office.
The tribe also said it would ask Gov. Deval Patrick's administration to begin negotiations on a state compact that would allow the tribe to someday open a much larger Class III resort casino, either on the island or on lands taken into trust on the mainland. The state has refused to enter into such talks in the past, contending that the Aquinnah ceded gaming rights in a 1983 settlement that secured tribal lands.
The tribe has disputed the state's assertion.
Patrick's chief legal counsel, Kate Cook, said in a statement that the state has the authority under the land claims settlement to regulate gambling on the Aquinnah's land, but said it would review the tribe's request "closely and in good faith and proceed accordingly."
Patrick separately negotiated a compact with the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, which has proposed a resort casino in Taunton. The Legislature gave final approval to that compact on Tuesday.
During a conference call with reporters, Andrews-Maltais said the temporary gambling hall on the island could be up and running in a matter of months, making it the first gambling facility to open in Massachusetts. A state law passed in 2011 allows for up to three regional resort casinos and one slots parlor, but the Aquinnah facility would not fall under the jurisdiction of that law.
"What we're looking to be is another entertainment venue for people who come to the island for their regular vacations," Andrews-Maltais said.
She said she did not believe the Martha's Vineyard facility would require approval from the state or from local governments to go forward.
Clyde Barrow, a professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth and an expert on casino gambling, said it was likely that the state and possibly the Martha's Vineyard Commission, a planning agency for the island, would take legal action to stop the tribe from opening the facility.
Barrow said the Aquinnah may be using Tuesday's announcement as leverage to force the Patrick administration to enter into casino negotiations.
Martha's Vineyard, said Barrow, is a "horrible location" for a casino, with narrow roads and heavy traffic during the summer.
The tribe felt a responsibility to protect the beauty of Martha's Vineyard, Maltais-Andres said, and its gambling facility would blend in with the island and have an overall positive economic impact.
In 1998, the Fall River Council rejected a proposal by the Aquinnah to develop a $25 million bingo parlor in that city.
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