Indigenous Peoples Month and Thanksgiving both take place in November. Yet, tribal gaming has never been so intense. So why have the Mashpee Wampanoags of Massachusetts, the Indians that met the Pilgrims for that first Thanksgiving, been unable to make their dream come true? Here’s the story about Wampanoag’s First Thanksgiving and Casino Plans.

The gaming industry has enabled many tribes across the country to reverse extreme poverty, provide for tribal members’ health and education, preserve Native cultures, and achieve meaningful goals that were previously unattainable. Yet, stories and myths of the first Thanksgiving reveal different interpretations.

So how did that First Thanksgiving go?

What Was The Wampanoags First Thanksgiving Like?

Too often, historical accuracy is changed in folklore depending on who is telling the story. For example, in A Disney classic, Pocahontas tells the story of an English soldier and the daughter of an Algonquin chief as they become romantically involved when the English colonists invade Virginia in the 17th Century. In the film, Pocahontas and John Smith are both adults. However, history records that Pocahontas was roughly ten years old when Smith arrived. It’s not necessarily the best facts for a children’s film.

Wampanoags First Thanksgiving and First Light
Chief Massasoit negotiated a peace agreement with the Pilgrims of Plymouth in 1621.

We are familiar with the story of the 1621 Thanksgiving from the Pilgrims’ point of view. But unfortunately, the Wampanoag tribe’s story is usually presented in a concise or distorted way.

Related Article – What Happened at the 1st Thanksgiving

According to a Plimoth Plantation timeline, the Mayflower arrived at Plymouth Harbor on December 16, 1620. The Pilgrims settled in a Wampanoag village abandoned four years after a deadly plague outbreak by European traders who first appeared in the area in 1616. The museum’s literature tells that before 1616, the Wampanoag numbered 50,000 to 100,000, occupying 69 villages scattered throughout southeastern Massachusetts and eastern Rhode Island. The plague, however, killed thousands, up to two-thirds of them. Many also had been captured and sold as enslaved people.

You may ask yourself, “What does the story about the Wampanoag’s First Thanksgiving have to do with casino gambling?” Read on.

Related Article – The Wampanoag Side of the First Thanksgiving Story

The Mashpee Wampanoags“Not Real Indians?”

In contrast to the warm and fuzzy story of the first Thanksgiving, the Mashpee Wampanoags tribe has experienced difficulty with federal recognition and building a casino. Massachusetts withdrew recognition during the 1800s.

From 1870 to the present, the Mashpee Tribe has maintained continuous title to and possession of critical tracts of land within the historic Mashpee reservation. But even in 1946, the U.S. Navy moved to condemn Mashpee beach lands for military training and uses temporarily.

The Mashpee Wampanoags won federal recognition in 2007, which allowed the Interior Secretary to grant them a reservation. However, lawsuits claimed it was wrong to take Mashpee’s land into trust. Why? Because the Mashpee Wampanoags” did not fit the definition of Indian.” Even though they are recognized as the same Native American Tribe we remember for the first Thanksgiving, the Wampanoag’s First Thanksgiving and Casino are intertwined with irony.

The Facts About Tribal Gaming

First, let’s look at how gaming rights occurred for tribal nations. How did it all come about? The following is from the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association:

“Indian tribes have the right to conduct gaming activities on tribal lands because they are sovereign nations, as recognized in the U.S. Constitution, with the retained right to govern themselves. Before the United States existed, tribes governed themselves, provided for their people, and negotiated treaties with other nations. The U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1789, specifically recognizes the sovereignty of Indian nations and foreign nations and the ‘several states’ meaning Indian tribes are equal to, not subservient to, states and foreign nations.”

“The Supreme Court affirmed this right in 1987, and the next year Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA), proclaiming that tribes must be the “sole owner and primary beneficiary” of Indian gaming activities. Moreover, to begin gaming operations, each tribe had to reach an agreement – called a compact – with its respective state government.”

Related Post – Pride and Prejudice of New England Tribal Gaming

Industry OppositionWampanoag First Light

Massachusetts Regions for full casinos.
Massachusetts Regions for full casinos. The original plan omitted the Mashpee Wampanoags in Taunton or Plainridge Park Slot Parlor in Plainville. Therefore, the MGC is not considering a casino Region Cat this time.

Initially, the Expanded Gaming Act of 2013 included four casinos – two commercial, one tribal, and one slots-only. However, low, unexpected revenue production and many factors produced only two commercial and one slots-only casino. In addition, the Wampanoag casino obstacles and the Covid pandemic made it impossible for the First Light project to see any progress.

Encore Boston Harbor would have the most significant concern with the First Light Casino project. The Encore Boston is the largest casino in Massachusetts, with 2800 game machines. However, Project First Light Resort & Casino could take this title if it opens, with over 3000 gaming options expected to be available. Just the proximity alone would raise the bar of competition. It would be only 50 minutes away from Encore Boston Harbor. It would provide aggressive competition for Plainridge Park, the slots-only parlor in Plainville, MA.

Ballys Twin River in Lincoln, Rhode Island, and sister property Ballys Tiverton would also feel threatened. Rhode Island’s casinos are the state’s third-biggest source of tax revenue, and its legislators are anxious to protect them from the competition.

In all, five casino properties in Massachusetts and Rhode Island would be within an hour of each other with the addition of the Wampanoags First Light casino. In addition, Wampanoags Casino would be a future concern.

The Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe – Still Waiting

The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) is still planning a small gaming facility in Martha’s Vineyard. But the tribe’s progress has hit a pretty big wall.

The Aquinnah tribe announced plans in 2013 for a gaming facility in an unfinished community center. The state quickly sued to block the project, arguing that the tribe gave up gambling rights in a 1983 land settlement, in which the tribe agreed its lands would be subject to state law. The tribe argued that the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act superseded this agreement. The tribe prevailed in the legal fight in 2018 and began planning to build the casino at a new site on their reservation.

Wampanoag Community Center and Future Bingo Hall gets new life.
Wampanoag Community Center and Future Class II Casino

The 10,0000-square-foot casino would feature 250 electronic gaming machines that operate under Class II bingo-type rules. The federal government approved their “Class II” gambling application – the state sued to block it.

Wampanoags First Thanksgiving and Casino
Here is a rendering of the finished casino Aquinnah Cliffs, if built.

In January 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the state’s case against the Aquinnah Tribe. But in 2019, a federal court case filed by the Martha Vineyard Commission ruled the Aquinnah tribe must abide by local zoning laws and acquire proper building permits, reaffirmed in a Feb 2021 appeals court decision.

In what seemed a final blow, On April 19, 2021, the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) suffered a setback when a federal appeals court rejected the tribe’s request to build the Aquinnah Cliffs Casino in Martha’s Vineyard.


Tribes may have sovereignty, but they have had a tough year due to Covid-19. Tribal economies also collapsed as casinos closed, depriving health care, education, housing, elder programs, and other member services. It’s time to allow tribal sovereignty and land trusts to do what they should.

Let’s hope we share our commonalities this Thanksgiving so we all can prosper and grow.