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Martha’s Vineyard tribe gets its day in court

In Massachusetts, the federally-recognized Wampanoag Tribe Of Gay Head (Aquinnah) was in federal court earlier this week pressing its case for the rights to operate a Class II gaming facility on its Martha’s Vineyard reservation.

According to a report from the Vineyard Gazette newspaper, the small tribe is fighting the state, a local community group and the town of Aquinnah in its effort to bring electronic bingo terminals to its unfinished 6,500 sq ft community center on the island and put its arguments to a three-judge panel of the United States Court Of Appeals For The First Circuit in Boston on Tuesday.

Elements of the tribe’s struggle date back to the 1970s when it filed a lawsuit against Aquinnah in order to obtain certain rights to aboriginal lands located within the town. The Wampanoag Tribe Of Gay Head (Aquinnah) reached a settlement in 1983 that gave it about 400 acres of land in exchange for agreeing to submit to local and state zoning laws and forfeit other land and water claims.

This was followed in 1987 by the federal endorsement of the Massachusetts Settlement Act that decreed that the Wampanoag Tribe Of Gay Head (Aquinnah) lands were subject to state rules “including those laws and regulations which prohibit or regulate the conduct of bingo or any other game of chance”.

However, 1988 saw Congress pass the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which allows the federal government to independently sanction Class I and Class II gaming facilities without state approvals, with the tribe beginning construction on its community center in 2004. The Wampanoag Tribe Of Gay Head (Aquinnah) asserts that this final piece of legislation supersedes its 1983 settlement while its authority to construct and operate a Class II gaming facility has been affirmed by the Interior Solicitor and the National Indian Gaming Commission.

But, the state disagrees and joined with the island town and the Aquinnah/Gay Head Community Association in 2013 to file a lawsuit designed to stop the tribe from operating electronic bingo terminals. In his ruling in November of 2015, Judge Frank Dennis Saylor from the United States District Court For The District Of Massachusetts found against the Wampanoag Tribe Of Gay Head (Aquinnah) and decreed that it must submit to the Massachusetts Settlement Act.

The Vineyard Gazette reported that the tribe used this week’s hearing to argue that Saylor erred in his ruling because the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act pre-empts and “implicitly repealed” the provisions of the Massachusetts Settlement Act.

Following the hearing, Tobias Vanderhoop, a former Chairman for the Wampanoag Tribe Of Gay Head (Aquinnah), told the newspaper that he was “very confident” that the tribe’s action had indicated the “flaws in the previous analysis of our position”

“I’m very confident that our attorneys have effectively shown that the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act applies and that would be the appropriate outcome,” said Vanderhoop.

Martha’s Vineyard tribe gets its day in court