Martha's Vineyard town and Indian tribe at odds over proposed gambling hall

A casino fight is brewing on bucolic Martha's Vineyard.

The town of Aquinnah on Tuesday filed a request for a temporary restraining order that would compel the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe to stop construction of a gambling hall on the resort island.

The town argues the tribe should wait until a judge decides on a lawsuit challenging the tribe's plans. That case, filed by the state, the town and a local community association, goes before a federal judge in Boston on Aug. 12.

"The tribe unilaterally chose to begin construction of a casino a month before the summary judgment argument," the town says in its filing.

The tribe dismissed the legal maneuver as a "minor distraction" and questioned its merits.

"The town has yet to allege any type of public safety or building safety issue; the tribe is making its improvements to the gaming facility in compliance with applicable building codes, which will be properly inspected and certified to be code-compliant before the facility is ever open to the public," it said.

The filing comes as tensions between the tribe and the town have grown in recent weeks.

The town issued a cease and desist order on July 6 after Tobias Vanderhoop, chairman of the federally recognized tribe, said in a court deposition that the tribe would begin converting a partially finished, 6,500-square-foot community center into a gambling facility offering bingo-style electronic games.

Vanderhoop said the work would start July 6 and the tribe would not seek town permits or allow town inspections of the project since the building is located on tribal land. The tribe, which hopes to have the casino open by the fall, has also since told the town it won't honor the cease and desist order.

The tribe, meanwhile, will hold a special vote Aug. 16 on the casino plan after opponents gathered enough signatures for a petition, Vanderhoop confirmed. The casino proposal narrowly survived a similar vote last February.

Former tribal chairwoman Beverly Wright, who helped coordinate the petition, said: "This is our homeland. We do not want a casino near where our tribal children live. I'm all for gambling. But not on the island. It does not make sense here. We don't have the infrastructure."

Other tribe members say they're considering staging sit-ins to block further construction activity in the meantime. Tribe members who live on the island are mostly opposed to the casino while tribe members who live off the island and constitute the tribe's majority support the plan.

"Decisions are being made by people who don't even live here," says Jason Widdiss, a tribe member who lives on the island.

The tribe maintains it has the right under federal law to open on its lands a gambling facility that could offer high-stakes, bingo-style electronic games but not casino table games or other types of electronic gambling machines like slot machines.

The state and the town argue a 1983 agreement between the tribe and the state that resulted in the tribe's roughly 400 acres of land on Martha's Vineyard explicitly bars the tribe from entering the gambling business. The tribe says the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which was passed a few years after the land deal, supersedes any state or local laws.