BOSTON (AP) – As he enters his first full year in office, the new chief of a Massachusetts tribe says he intends to take a cautious approach to the game while focusing on social challenges and other economic opportunities for its members.
Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Chairman Brian Weeden, who is 29 and the youngest ever to hold the post, said that last month’s decision by President Joe Biden’s administration to assert the tribe’s reservation and overturning a controversial Trump-era order gives the tribe a legal basis to continue pursuing their long-standing casino dreams.
But he said the tribal leaders also wanted members to look at the idea with fresh eyes, given how much the landscape of the game has changed.
Massachusetts currently has three major casinos: MGM Springfield, Encore Boston Harbor, and the Plainridge Park slot machine show. The separate Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe also broke new ground in a more modest gaming room on Martha’s Vineyard, though this is mired in legal uncertainty. And state lawmakers are evaluating legislation to legalize sports betting in Massachusetts.
“We’re back to the drawing board, basically,” Weeden, who took office in May, said in a broad interview Thursday. âThere is always an appetite for the game. It just has to be a smart approach. It must be different from the past. We must learn from our mistakes and proceed with caution. “
Meanwhile, anti-casino residents of Taunton, the city where the Mashpee Wampanoag project is being proposed, have asked a federal judge in Boston to reopen their court challenge.
They argue, as they have already done, that the tribe was not eligible for a reservation because it was not an officially recognized tribe in 1934, the year in which the Federal Indian Reorganization Act, which laid the foundation for modern Indian politics, has become law. .
Opponents also argued that the tribe’s land in Taunton should not have been included in its reserve, as it is about 50 miles from the tribe’s base on Cape Cod and was not part of the historic domain. of the tribe. The tribal reserve covers approximately 170 acres in the town of Mashpee and an additional 150 acres in Taunton.
Weeden said the latest legal challenge would not deter the tribe, which traces its ancestors back to the Native Americans that pilgrims encountered centuries ago but who were not federally recognized until 2007.
Just ahead of last month’s decision, the tribe extended their deal with their Malaysian casino developer partners, Genting Berhad, by one year, according to Weeden.
But he said the tribe, which has around 3,000 members, is seeking new financial terms to bring its debt to the gaming giant under control, which stands at around $ 600 million and is growing, but is not due only if a gambling hall actually opens. Company spokespersons did not respond to emails seeking comment.
Weeden said members of the tribe should also consider reducing their casino ambitions.
Before litigation and the Trump administration’s order derailed it, the tribe opened a billion-dollar resort casino in a former industrial park in 2016. Dubbed First Light, the resort was to include a hotel and shopping, dining and entertainment options, including a water park.
Choosing to build a slot machine room or a more modest bingo hall, Weeden said, would exempt it from a 17% state tax on gaming revenue, even if that meant not being able to ‘offer popular table games like blackjack and poker.
Weeden said the tribe also shouldn’t completely rule out the casino plan and find other ways to bring financial stability to the tribe. He would like to see him consider opening duty-free tobacco stores, duty-free gas stations, recreational marijuana stores and other economic development initiatives on his lands.
âWe have to exercise our sovereignty,â Weeden said. “Casinos are just fruit at your fingertips.”
The new president says he also intends to focus more on homelessness, drug addiction and other social ills facing the tribe.
Next month, tribal leaders hope to present members with a plan to reduce the tribe’s roughly $ 15 million allocation from Biden’s coronavirus stimulus bill. Weeden says they will also seek federal funds through the $ 1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that Biden recently enacted, which includes some $ 11 billion for tribes.
Among the projects being considered is the construction of mini-houses or cabins where the homeless can live temporarily, Weeden said. The tribe also hopes to strengthen staffing and programs for drug addiction, mental health and other essential health services.
And with the National Racism Account reigniting calls for reparations for black slavery, Weeden said the tribe also intends to step up its own calls for restitution.
He says the state should return seized land or provide financial compensation, as the tribe’s current land holdings represent less than 1% of its ancestral territory.
âEverything that’s going on in this country around social injustice and racial injustice is great,â Weeden said. âBut the original inhabitants of this country are still fighting for the little land we have. Native Americans still do not get their fair share.