Massachusetts has been able to fast-track the opening of its very first tribal casino, but a possible law suit from the very ranks being granted gambling rights in the state may bring the machinery to a standstill or, at the very least, cause considerably deferral of the process.
Moving swiftly, the Mashpee Wampanoag secured rights to the sole Southeastern Mass. casino license being granted to a federally recognized Indian tribe. The tribe, located in Cape Cod, even locked a land option in Taunton and worked out an understanding with the city elders for using the city as a host community. On June 9, they even successfully gained a vote of confidence from the locals in a non-binding ballot.
Signals from Gov. Deval Patrick as well as other state officials indicate that they are ready to sign a compact with Mashpee by the end of July, the 31st of which month is the deadline set by the law governing the casino. Another critical move is the application by the tribe to have the Taunton land placed into a federal trust, the hearings for which will be conducted starting Wednesday by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.
On the other side of the coin, the Wampanoag Aquinnah tribe has faced hurdle upon hurdle in its race to open a casino. The two towns of Freetown and Lakeville have both vetoed the idea of a casino operating within their communities, which spells defeat for the tribe. To add to their woes, the state has continually refused a compact, citing a 1983 land agreement that provided tribal lands on Martha’s Vineyard. The state now says that because of the agreement, the Aquinnah have given up any further rights to tribal gaming on the lands allocated to them, as well as any future property that is acquired by them. The tribe, on the other hand, completely and strongly disagrees with this interpretation.
The 1988 federal Indian Gaming Act post-dates the land settlement agreement, but the latter clearly states that the tribe would have to abide by state laws that either prohibit or control games of chance. The issue at the moment is whether the federal law overrides the settlement, allowing the tribe to operate casino gaming on their lands which are newly acquired.
Should the Aquinnah tribe go the route of a federal lawsuit, it may adversely affect tribal casinos in the state. According to a statement issued by tribal leaders, they have indicated that they would consider their position and take “appropriate steps” to protect the rights of the tribe. In their viewpoint, the federal Gaming Act effectively replaces the 1983 agreement, and that they have as much a right to open a gambling unit as the Mashpee Wampanoag. However, the state disagrees with this point of view and, as stated by a spokesman for the governor’s economic development office, “The Commonwealth’s position on the Aquinnah’s status has remained unchanged for 15 years and through multiple administrations and reflects the fact that the Commonwealth’s position has been that the two tribes are in fundamentally different situations under state law.”
While it is true that Mashpee has not, in the past, entered into any land settlement agreement with the state of Massachusetts, Aquinnah’s position is equally tenable, in the tribe’s own opinion. The fate of the casino gaming industry on tribal lands rests on the ability of the state to segregate these two cases and settle the issue amicably.