Can We Expect More Tribal Casinos?

Can We Expect More Tribal Casinos? New England is home to two well-known tribal casinos. So yes, Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun get their share of the headlines. But did you know that there eventually could be three more? And one more, just a ferry ride away on Long Island?

More Tribal Casinos Expected in New England

What Is Tribal Sovereignty?

Tribal sovereignty in the United States is the concept of the “inherent authority of indigenous tribes to govern themselves within the United States’ borders.” Initially, the U.S. federal government recognized American Indian tribes as independent nations. Then, they signed treaties to come to policy agreements.

Currently, the U.S. recognizes tribal nations as “domestic dependent nations.” The American legal system defines the relationship between the federal, state, and tribal governments. American Indian Tribal Sovereignty means they have sovereign immunity to lawsuits, similar to many other government entities. But, in some ways, tribal sovereignty goes beyond sovereign immunity. It extends to other government units, like states or cities.

Related Post – American Indian Sovereignty in the United States: Understanding Native American Rights

Can We Expect More Tribal Casinos? Maine Tribes Seek Sovereignty

Former Congresswoman Deb Haaland was confirmed as the first Native American to serve in a president’s cabinet. Her post in the Department of the Interior is significant for Native American tribes. Moreover, it’s excellent timing for Maine’s Native American tribes. Once again, they ask state lawmakers for the right to develop a gambling casino.

More Tribal Casinos Are Expected in New England
Deb Haaland

Four tribes in Maine are federally recognized. Among them are the Passamaquoddy, Houlton Band of Maliseet, and the Penobscot Nation. Maine would have to re-negotiate a new compact with the tribes to allow gambling. The landmark land claims settlement of 1980 exempted Maine from federal Indian gaming laws, which prevented the tribes from opening casinos on their lands.

The Penobscot Indian Nation had previously operated the Penobscot High Stakes Bingo in Old Town, the only tribal gaming facility in the state. However, the bingo hall was permanently closed in 2015. There are currently no casino proposals yet for tribal lands. Malian Dana, Penobscot Nation Tribal Ambassador, said the changes are needed to give Maine’s tribes the same rights under federal law as other native peoples.

“For the tribes, this is not about the ethics or mechanics of the gaming industry itself,…This is about our inherent sovereignty as tribal nations and the right to self-determination and self-governance.”

Maulian Dana, Penobscot Nation Tribal Ambassador

Years of opposition to expanded gambling in Maine provide an uphill climb. Changes in the Maine agreement also face opposition from the current Hollywood Casino in Bangor and the Oxford Casino & Hotel in Oxford. These two commercial casinos have seen success in Maine. Both Maine casinos do not want the competition.

A Tale of Two Tribes in Massachusetts

The Mashpee Wampanoags

The Mashpee Wampanoags won federal recognition in 2007, which allowed the Interior Secretary to grant them a reservation. However, a recent lawsuit claimed taking Mashpee’s land into trust was wrong. Why? Because the Mashpee Wampanoags” did not fit the definition of Indian.” In March 2020, the U.S. Interior Dept. removed the tribe’s reservation status, effectively ending this casino project.

More Tribal Casinos Are Expected in New England
FirstLight Banner, March 2016

Related Post – Pride and Prejudice of New England Tribal Gaming

On June 5, 2020, a U.S. district judge stopped the DOI (Department of Interior) from moving the Mashpee Wampanoag land out of federal trust. And then, they ordered the DOI to “review the matter and issue new findings.” The U.S. Department of Interior withdrew its appeal of the June 2020 ruling, leaving the Mashpee casino land in federal trust.

More Tribal Casinos Are Expected in New England
FirstLight Resort Casino, Wampanoag Tribe, Taunton

The First Light Casino project for Taunton, Massachusetts, is no longer on hold. The Mashpee Wampanoags can proceed with its plans to build a 150,000 sq-ft casino and a 12-story hotel.

The Aquinnah Wampanoags

For years the Aquinnah tribe has wanted to build a casino on their land on Martha’s Vineyard. The 10,000-square-foot casino would feature 250 electronic gaming machines. Those machines would operate under Class II bingo-type rules. While Massachusetts sued to block it, the federal government approved their “Class II” gambling application.

Related Post Gambling in Massachusetts – The Bay State

The Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe on Martha’s Vineyard started construction work on the Aquinnah Cliffs Casino in February 2019. In 2019, the Martha Vineyard Commission filed a federal court case. It ruled the Aquinnah tribe must abide by local zoning laws and acquire proper building permits.

The Aquinnah Cliffs Casino project is on hold, pending the building permits. The Martha Vineyard commission does not want the casino and appears to be stalling the licenses.

Not IN New England, But Across From Long Island Sound

Two months ago, a new tribal casino venture appeared. While not IN New England, it could attract tourists from southern New England states.

The Shinnecock Nation announced plans to build a casino. The tribe named it Shinnecock Casino Hamptons on their tribal land at the eastern end of Long Island. However, the National Indian Gaming Commission must approve after environmental a remaining impact study before construction can begin. Below is an overview of the casino plans and community opinion.

Many eastern Long Island residents depart daily on a high-speed passenger ferry leaving Orient Point for New London, CT. This short 40-minute cruise has transported gamblers and their Long Island dollars to Connecticut tribal casinos for years. The same ferry could enable the same access from Connecticut to Long Island. In future consideration, the class II Shinnecock casino poses no financial threat to both tribal resorts.

Connecticut Tribes – More Tribal Casinos Are Expected in New England

MGM built their Springfield casino and started as a great success. No more Springfield and surrounding valley gamblers would have to visit the Connecticut Tribal casinos. The Massachusetts casino revenue would soar. And the MGC rejoiced.

Well, revenue did not soar for Massachusetts casinos. Thus, the two Connecticut tribes showed less interest in their joint casino venture. Finally, MGM admitted that tough competition from Connecticut’s two venerable tribal casinos is partly to blame for never making revenue expectations. “This market has some powerful competitors that have been in the market for 20-plus years,” said Mike Mathis, the previous head of MGM Springfield. “I think we underestimated that level of loyalty and what it would take for those customers to give us a shot.”

Related Post – MGM Springfield Four Years Later

More Tribal Casinos Are Expected in New England
MMCT Tribal Casino in East Windsor

The Connecticut tribes and CT Governor ironed out a new sports gaming and igaming agreement. So, both Mohegans and Pequots in Connecticut are shutting down their interest in Tribal Winds Casino in East Windsor on the CT / MA border. The Connecticut tribes can still build a Bridgeport casino, but there is no interest.

Summary – Can We Expect More Tribal Casinos?

It will be months before this is sorted out and finalized in court. But, I see both Wampanoag casinos finally becoming a reality. We hope that Maine will allow the tribes to finally get help for their tribal members, as many native Americans have across our great nation. Time will tell.