Wampanoags Hope To Cash In on Casino

Rolling the DICE ELECTIONS '94 First in a three series

MARTHA'S VINEYARD--A 45-minute steamship ride brings tourists by the thousands to this island resort, where the big attractions are quaint general stores, summer homes of the rich and famous and miles of unspoiled beaches.

But where the tourist buses don't go, down the rustic road far past John Belushi's grave and Jackie O's sprawling compound, lie the tribal lands of the Wampanoags.

Once the sole inhabitants of the island, the Wampanoags have long been distant--both geographically and economically--from the heartbeat of the island's tourism industry. Recently, though, the tribe has begun to come into its own.

In the lobby of its spanking new headquarters, the tribal council sells Wampanoags T-shirts to passing visitors. The tribe recently began building the first housing units ever built on tribal land.

And now the Wampanoags want to open a casino.

But while Gov. William F. Weld '66 has given the Wampanoags a green light, Democratic opponent Mark Roosevelt '78 has spent much of his campaign lambasting Weld's support for gambling, which he sees as a corrupt institution of questionable benefit to the region.

It's more than simply a difference of opinion. Gambling, perhaps the issue that most clearly distinguishes the two moderates' agendas, promises to be a focal point of the campaign until the election only three weeks from now.

And in this day when casinos are sprouting up all over the country and almost no state is without a lottery, gambling--and its effects on society--is becoming one of the most vexing issues in public life.

The Wampanoags, it seems, are caught in the middle.

The Plan

The tribe's plan calls the building of a multi-million-dollar complex--no one will say exactly how much the project would cost--which would offer casino gaming, along with a family-oriented theme park, shops and restaurants.

The enterprise would, in theory, provide 5,000 to 7,000 jobs for the area around New Bedford, the fourth-largest city in Massachusetts and one plagued by economic hardship in recent years.

The New Bedford site is on the

Massachusetts mainland, just across Vineyard Sound from the Wampanoag tribal land. The tribe hopes the casino would draw tourists on their way to Martha's Vineyard as well as pleasure-seekers willing to make the 90-minute trip from Boston.

The idea originated with Weld's recent plan to finance a new Megaplex, a state convention center and sports arena, with riverboat casinos and the statewide distribution of slot machines. When Weld's project began to succumb to political opposition, the Wampanoag tribal council stepped forward with its own gaming proposal.

When the tribe's lands on Martha's Vineyard were declared unsuitable for the complex because of insufficient infrastructure, the tribe settled on the New Bedford site.

Although the plan still awaits federal approval--necessary because the tribe would build the casino away from its own lands--it appears the tribe will soon be cashing in on its casino.

Unless, of course, Roosevelt defeats Weld at the polls next month.

Assuming the tribe obtains federal permission to build the casino, it would have to enter an agreement with the state government. And Roosevelt has said that he has other plans for New Bedford.

Cultural Identity

Only some are excited about the possibility of employing a large segment of the tribe's 682 members at a casino.

Others say the Wampanoags--who will likely have jobs such as bartending and dealing cards--may be corrupted by their involvement with the massive gambling operation.

But tribal council members, who have pushed the casino project from the beginning, disagree.

"They're setting us on a different level than everyone else," says Beverly M. Wright, the tribal council chair. "Donald Trump has his casinos. Do people say it's going to corrupt his culture because he's making money on this?"

Despite their leaders' enthusiasm, some Wampanoags say that they don't want to be famous for running a casino.

"I don't want to see the Wampanoag name stuck on some silly carnival ride or a hamburger joint," says Marc E. Widdiss, a member of the tribe. "This does nothing to enhance our image."

The casino's appeal, at least in the minds of supporters, is its potential for raising funds--not as an end in itself, but for the long-term goal of restoring the tribe's sense of unity.

Because of the scarcity of jobs on the island, only 300 of the nearly 700 Wampanoags live on Martha's Vineyard--and none live on the tribal land. No one speaks the Wampanoag language.

And tribal member Willard M. Marden III says tribal functions are becoming less and less important to younger Wampanoags, for most of whom "there's not a lot of contact" with the tribe or its traditions.

Cultural awareness and tribal unity are closely bound to the gambling project, according to Jeffrey Madison, the tribe's director of economic development.

"I see so many Wampanoag people who don't know who they are, who aren't proud of where they came from and who their ancestors were," says Jeffrey Madison, who would oversee the distribution of casino revenues should the plan be approved.

Part of the solution, Wright and others believe, is to use casino revenues--which federal law requires be spent on the tribe--to establish new programs to support tribe members and bring them together.

Although the final distribution has not been decided, Madison says the money will go to providing health care, day care and care for elderly Wampanoags. A percentage will also go to establishing a scholarship for the study of the lost Wampanoag language.

Madison acknowledges some tribe members' qualms about the morality of gambling, but says that if gambling is an evil, it's a necessary one.

"Some people are opposed to gambling, and I respect that," Madison says. "But can you tell me how we can recover the lost Wampanoag language...? Is that going to happen without money? Are we going to be able to build housing and provide health care for our people without money? Those programs cost money."

But in trying to bring the tribe closer together, the council may instead be tearing the Wampanoags apart.

Though the tribal council has denied widespread dissent, placing the number of opponents within the tribe at "about one percent," tribal members said last week they have serious misgivings about the casino.

Though some oppose the casino on moral grounds, others say they're simply appalled by the heavy-handed rule of the current tribal government.

"The tribal council has pretty much isolated themselves from the tribe in this," Widdiss says. "This has been orchestrated by Mrs. Wright and her cronies."

Widdiss, who calls the tribal government's push for the casino "blatant corruption," says the issue was never brought to a tribal vote.

In fact, 14 months after discussion of the proposal first began, the council is only next weekend holding its first open hearing on the project.

Madison says the issue hasn't been put to the tribe because there's no other option for financial stability; in short, the case is closed.

"I don't think that we need to achieve unanimity," Madison says.

And in the end, a project designed to promote tribal unity has resulted in fragmentation and discord.

"There are factions," says Marden, who has not made up his mind about the casino. "The divisions are sharp."

One thing everyone agrees on is the need for an economic upswing. Years of stagnation--and the accompanying increase in unemployment--are repeatedly cited by leaders of both the tribe and the City of New Bedford as the driving force behind the casino plan.

It's all, they say, about jobs.

"A lot of tribal members have moved off the island because there was no work," Wright says. "It's not the gaming, it's the jobs--the people of Massachusetts need jobs. Our tribal members need jobs."

Currently, the only employment opportunities for the Wampanoags in the adjoining town of Gay Head--which the Wampanoags call Aquinnah, meaning both "land below the hill" and "beautiful colors by the sea"--are as short-order cooks and clerks in the strip of ramshackle businesses that line the town's beaches.

But where exactly the new casino jobs will be allocated has become a contentious issue between the tribe and the City of New Bedford.

Like the Wampanoags, New Bedford has suffered economically. And like the Wampanoags, the city's residents are in need of jobs.

New Bedford City Councillor David M. Gerwatowski says that though the Wampanoags want to give preference to tribal members, and then to residents of Bristol County, "we're making our case known" in the bid for casino-related employment.

The tribe has fewer than 700 members, while even the most conservative estimates suggest 5,000 jobs will be provided by the casino.

Still, while New Bedford has embraced the idea of housing the casino, not all are convinced it's the best option for the city. Even those who say they will support the plan have reservations.

"We definitely need a boost--but I don't know if the answer is gambling," says City Councillor John Saunders. "I'd be a fool to say I represent the city and turn that many jobs away...but it will create a certain amount of corruption and violence."

New Bedford, a heavily industrial and staunchly Democratic city, voted overwhelmingly for Roosevelt in the primary election last month, Saunders points out.

"It's surprising," Saunders says. "It tells me that they're not too crazy about the idea of a casino in New Bedford."

Roosevelt's Plan

Roosevelt has developed his own plan for economic development in the New Bedford area--a plan that omits casino gambling.

Roosevelt spokesperson Dwight D. Robson says his candidate would include beefing up New Bedford's airport, developing new venture capital funds and economic enterprise zones to stimulate development, strengthening local infrastructure through parks and an aquarium project and infusing state funds directly into local industry.

Robson says those plans are not yet completely developed, and that while Roosevelt has not visited the area recently, he plans a trip "very soon."

But not all New Bedford residents are thankful for Roosevelt's promises.

"The thing with Mark Roosevelt that has upset people in this area is his attitude that 'you listen to me, I know better than you,'" Gerwatowski says. "Do we want to see casinos go all over Massachusetts? Of course we don't. We're saying it can provide immediately needed jobs."

On Fairness

As though the casino plan didn't face enough opposition, some other municipalities have objected that their cities are at least as financially strapped as New Bedford. In Chelsea, for example, a shortage of funds recently forced the city to bring in Boston University to run its public schools. Officials there have complained that giving New Bedford the sole right to build a casino is unfair.

The Wampanoags--who live nowhere near Chelsea or other disgruntled towns--do not see it that way.

"Fair? Give me a break. How much money have Native Americans gotten or the Aquinnah Wampanoags for giving up all of Massachusetts?" Madison says. "What is fair is that we have been given the right to operate under existing federal law."

"Fair has damn little to do with it," he says. "If fair had anything to do with it, there wouldn't be an outcry every time American Indians try to pull themselves out of the gutter."

A Weld Defeat?

Other communities aside, the whole question may be moot if Roosevelt is elected. In a sense, the whole future of the Wampanoag tribe may be riding on what Massachusetts voters decide November 8.

Roosevelt, like some tribal and city leaders, does not believe the casino would help the community. Indeed, he sees many dangers.

"If Bill Weld gets his way, we'll see increased crime, we'll see domestic violence, we'll see the failure of legitimate businesses," Roosevelt said after his primary victory.

But tribal leaders have barely considered what might happen if Roosevelt defies the odds and upsets Weld. Widdiss recalls a tribal council meeting two weeks ago at which the leaders were asked what would happen if Weld lost the race.

"You could have heard a pin drop," Widdiss says. "They had not thought of talking to Mark Roosevelt."

And conversely, Madison says, Roosevelt has not consulted the tribe, despite their central role as the potential builders of the casino.

"Roosevelt? Speak to the Indians? Excuse me, what's wrong with that picture?" Madison says. "Why would he lower himself to speak to the Native Americans?"

Wright says she won't comment on the politics of the project.

"We've tried to keep out of it," Wright says. "We have an agreement with Governor Weld."

Robson defends Roosevelt's position as the best alternative for the region--if not specifically for the Wampanoags.

"He feels we can do much better for the people of New Bedford by providing real economic opportunities," Robson says, "jobs you can bring a family up on."

At the moment, the deck is stacked against Roosevelt, though; the latest Boston Globe/WBZ poll shows Weld leading in the race, 62 to 26 percent.

Plans Continue

Meanwhile, the Wampanoags continue to plan what their new casino would look like. State-of-the art motion simulators and virtual reality rides are part of the most recent blueprints. The council has not yet decided if Native American history and culture will figure into the attractions.

Some competition will exist for the casino. The only other gaining center in New England, the Pequot tribe's Foxwoods in Ledyard, Conn., is far away, but it is the largest grossing casino in the world. Madison says he is confident business at the Wampanoags' casino would flourish.

But what if something happens a federal denial, a Roosevelt victory and the Wampanoags shoot snake-eyes?

"We're going to be poor forever," Madison says.

Today

The Wampanoags pin their hopes for economic development and tribal unity on casino gambling

Monday

Legal gambling becomes a key moral and political issue in a tough gubernatorial campaign.

Tuesday

The existing New England gambling Industry looks at a future with some new competition.CrimsonT-shirts with the tribal logo are for sale at the Wampanoag Tribal Council hall in Gay Head. The tribe hopes its next enterprise, a proposed casino, will bring in millions of dollars and create thousands of jobs.