There are over 500 tribal casinos across the United States, but not one of them is in Massachusetts. But that’s not because the state’s two federally-recognized Native American tribes haven’t tried to bring tribal gaming to the state.
The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) want to build gaming facilities. The larger of the two tribes, the Mashpee, rolled out a comprehensive plan for a $1 billion resort casino in 2016. The Aquinnah tribe’s most recent moves include attempts to build an electronic bingo hall on the western end of Martha’s Vineyard, a center of Wampanoag culture.
The Stalled First Light
The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe includes about 3,000 members. The tribe’s reservation land includes 320 acres in Taunton and Mashpee.
Back in 2016, the tribe announced completed plans for a destination resort casino in Taunton. The First Light Resort and Casino proposal included three hotels, a shopping center, entertainment venues, an event center, restaurants, and a water park. The layout featured a 150,000-square-foot casino with 3,000 slots and 40 poker tables.
Construction was set to begin in four phases after a breaking ground ceremony in April 2016. The timeline for the first phase was 18 months and included the casino. But unfortunately for the Mashpee, legal challenges prevented the start of any construction. To this day, the site remains empty.
Opposition to the project came primarily from two fronts: a group of Taunton residents and the federal government. The Mashpee received trust status for its reservation in 2015 from the federal government. This gave the Mashpee legal autonomy over the land.
Residents of Taunton who opposed the casino claim that it is not a legitimate project because the site is 50 miles from the tribe’s Cape Cod home base and that it would bring crime and traffic to the area.
The Trump administration also opposed the First Light and decided that it would remove the trust from the Mashpee land. In fighting the decision from the White House, the tribe received support from the National Congress of American Indians, a coalition representing over 500 tribes.
Legal Relief But Still No Casino
The Mashpee finally received legal relief when the Biden administration came out on the opposite side of its predecessors in late 2021 and reaffirmed the Mashpee land’s status as a federally protected trust.
As the legal battles played out over the past few years, Mashpee tribal leaders revamped their plans for building a casino. Other options they’ve cited include scaling down the scope of the project to build a bingo hall or slots parlor.
“We’re back to the drawing board, basically,” said tribal chairman Brian Weeden to WBUR. “There’s still an appetite for gaming. It just needs to be a smart approach. It has to be different from the past. We need to learn from our mistakes and proceed with caution.”
A Bingo Hall In Limbo
The Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe started the process of building a bingo hall in 2019. However, the tribe faced similar local challenges as the Mashpee, and the project stalled after land was cleared for the proposed Class II facility.
Under federal law, a Class II gaming facility on tribal land does not require the state’s approval. However, since the project’s inception, the tribe has been unable to overcome legal hurdles stemming from disputes with the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, members of the Aquinnah and Chilmark town councils, and the federal government.
A court ruling in April 2021 upheld the requirements of local officials that the Aquinnah Wampanoag obtain permits and adhere to local zoning regulations in constructing the casino. The tribe opposed these rulings arguing that the gaming facility would be on sovereign land and, therefore, not subject to state zoning laws.
Currently, the casino project is still in limbo.
Effect Of Upcoming Sports Betting Launch
While the state’s tribes continue their battle to build Native American-owned gaming facilities, the state’s gaming commission is readying for the rollout of Massachusetts sports betting in 2023. Two out-of-state tribes are among the applicants for online sports betting licenses in the state, including the Mohegan of neighboring Connecticut, who own one of the largest casinos in the U.S. and gambling properties in other states.
So, it is entirely possible that other tribes may get the opportunity to profit from gambling in the state while the Mashpee Wampanoag and the Aquinnah Wampanoag are still fighting to build their own gaming facilities.