Why help only the Mashpee Wampanoag?

All tribes deserve same rights, including Aquinnah Wampanoags

IT HAS BEEN A GREAT WEEK for the Mashpee Wampanoag in their quest to open a tribal casino in Taunton.  The US House of Representative passed the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Reservation Reaffirmation Act by a vote of 275 to 146.  The act is designed to correct a flaw in the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 and allow the Department of the Interior to take lands into trust on behalf of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe.  However, there is another branch of the Wampanoag Tribe that has been marginalized for decades: the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head.

In the 1990s, the Aquinnah Wampanoag entered into a compact with the state via the administration of former governor William Weld to allow the tribe to open a modest high stakes bingo parlor on tribal lands on Martha’s Vineyard.  That compact called for the tribe to share revenue with the Commonwealth equal to 25 percent of gross gaming revenue generated by the facility.  That compact was never ratified by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, as it was deemed to be overly generous to the Commonwealth.  That situation was similar to that of the Mashpee Wampanoags with regard to their proposed Casino of the First Light in Taunton.  Their compact with the Commonwealth called for a 25 percent revenue share as well, but at the instance of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, that amount was decreased to 17 percent of gross gaming revenue.

It is there that the similarity ends.  Since the Aquinnah’s compact was never ratified, the administration of former governor Deval Patrick and the Massachusetts Legislature treated that agreement as a nullity.  They glibly argued the Aquinnah had waived their tribal sovereignty, and the right to conduct gaming, in the 1987 Aquinnah Land Claims Settlement Agreement, despite case law that stated that any waiver of tribal sovereignty could not be implied and must be expressly and knowingly made.  In addition, the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, passed by congress in 1988, granted the Aquinnah the right to game on their reservation lands.

But the Aquinnah have been thwarted in their efforts by a lawsuit initiated by former attorney general Martha Coakley and continued by current Attorney General Maura Healey to deprive them of their legal right to game on their tribal lands and use that revenue stream for economic development and as a way to provide much needed services to members of the tribe.  An initial judgment in favor of the Commonwealth was overturned in a unanimous decision by the First Circuit Court of Appeals, which was allowed to stand when the US Supreme Court refused to hear the state’s appeal.

Now the attention of Congress will be focused on the Mashpee tribe, while Cinderella (the Aquinnah tribe) toils away in the scullery trying to open a small facility on their reservation lands on Martha’s Vineyard.  It is time for Cinderella to be invited to the ball.  Any legislation designed to remedy the Mashpee land-in-trust problem should be broadened to include a land-in-trust provision for the Aquinnah on the mainland as well and, indeed, all Indian tribes across the nation.

Meet the Author

Paul DeBole

Assistant professor of political science, Lasell College
The quest for economic justice should not be reserved for a well-financed tribe that can afford to pay lobbyists to plead their case before the powers that be.  It must be aimed at helping both federally recognized tribes here in Massachusetts and all tribes across the nation so that they may be able to attain a level of economic self-sufficiency and fulfill the noble purposes of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

Paul L. DeBole is an assistant professor of political science at Lasell College in Newton.