Wampanoag Tribe Gets Martha’s Vineyard Bingo Hall, But With Some Conditions

Written By Martin Harris on March 2, 2021 - Last Updated on December 1, 2021

The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head can build its gambling facility on Martha’s Vineyard.

But contrary to the tribe’s desires, they’ll have to work with local officials moving forward.

In a case dating back to 2013, the First Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a lower court ruling that the tribe can proceed with building its long-planned gambling hall on reservation lands. However, they’ll need to obtain local permits and abide by zoning regulations when doing so.

Tribe and town must collaborate on bingo hall

The ruling means the Wampanoag tribe can move ahead with the construction. The plan is to build a 10,000-square-foot Class II gaming facility with 250 electronic gaming machines.

However, town planners and the Martha’s Vineyard Commission will have to provide their sign-off for construction to proceed.

The Martha’s Vineyard Times provided a full overview of the ruling as well as the case’s many twists and turns.

The tribe had objected to the authority of town officials in part because of fears the town and/or the Martha’s Vineyard Commission might slow construction or even stop it entirely.

Tribal council chairwoman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais underscored that view when responding to the ruling. According to Andrews-Maltais, the ruling affirms the tribe’s right to conduct gaming on its lands, and “neither the town nor the Martha’s Vineyard Commission can use the permitting process to stop the tribe’s gaming facility from opening.”

For the town of Aquinnah, its board of selectmen chair Jim Newman insists the town does not intend to obstruct the tribe’s progress, noting Aquinnah wants “to move constructively going forward.”

That said, should the two sides encounter any subsequent friction, they could end up back in court once more.

Ruling follows years of lawsuits, appeals, and more appeals

When it comes to the saga of the Wampanoag tribe’s desire to build a gaming facility, the courtroom has been a familiar venue for the tribe, the town and state officials.

Starting in late 2013, then-Gov. Deval Patrick filed a lawsuit against the tribe in response to its first discussions of building an electronic bingo hall.

At issue was a 1987 settlement agreement between the tribe and state that had come just before the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988. From the state’s point of view, the earlier agreement in which the tribe had waived its rights to conduct gambling took precedent.

The lawsuit went to federal court where a judge ruled against the tribe in 2015. But in 2017 the First Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that ruling. The state tried to take it to the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case. Then in June 2019, a federal judge issued a final judgment on the matter. That judgment outlined how the tribe could build its facility but still needed to obtain local permits.

It was that decision the tribe appealed. And finally, last week, the appeals court sided with the town and state.

A site has been cleared for the facility. However, the tribe has not announced a new target date for opening. The tribe has pushed back the opening multiple times already amid the ongoing litigation.

Photo by AP / Mark Lennihan
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