The dispute over the right of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) to arm its rangers with handguns and establish its own police force is now being hashed out in the offices of the state attorney general in Boston, where state officials are acting as facilitators.
After just one meeting, tribal leaders have already conceded one major point by agreeing that the authority to issue gun permits lies with the town police chief, not the tribe. The concession marks an about-face from the hard-line stance that tribal leaders have taken in the last two years.
The issue of a tribal police force remains to be settled.
Last April, Aquinnah town counsel Ron Rappaport wrote to Attorney General Thomas Reilly asking for guidance in resolving the disagreement between the tribe and the town. Two weeks ago several leaders from the tribe, along with Mr. Rappaport and Aquinnah police chief Doug Fortes, traveled to Boston to meet with two top officials from the attorney general's staff.
Two years ago, rangers acquired a half dozen semi-automatic pistols and began wearing them while on beach patrols the following summer. After objections from both Chief Fortes and town selectmen, tribal leaders ordered rangers to leave the guns at tribal headquarters.
But the problem didn't entirely go away. Rangers carrying guns again were spotted by the chief in September 2000, and by November of last year the tribal council had voted to allow rangers to carry firearms on tribal lands during the Wampanoag hunting season.
Even with the initial agreement reached last month, it's unclear whether tribal rangers will arm themselves again. Tribal council chairwoman Beverly Wright could not be reached for comment. The tribe's hunting season started last Friday.
"I really don't want to see rangers carrying guns until this issue is resolved," Chief Fortes told the Gazette this week. "It's still not clear to me who is ultimately responsible."
Both sides will sit down again in Boston on Oct. 18, with the remaining bone of contention the matter of a tribal police force. Last year, the tribe won a $274,000 federal grant to hire its own officers and outfit them with pistols, bulletproof vests, two vehicles and a patrol boat.
That plan came under immediate fire from Chief Fortes, who questioned the need for more police officers in a town with a year-round population of 360. He said that state and federal agreements recognizing the tribe back in 1987 did not sanction a tribal police force.
Tribal leaders disagreed, citing federal documents that affirmed the tribe's right "to assume concurrent jurisdiction over its own members." Earlier this year, David Nicholas, a district commander at the Office of Law Enforcement Services at the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, wrote a letter to Ms. Wright, supporting the tribe's desire to create its own police force.
"The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) is a federally recognized tribe and as such has the inherent authority to govern itself," Mr. Nicholas wrote. That authority, he argued, includes the right to enact laws for tribal members and to enforce those laws.
But in a letter to the state attorney general, Mr. Rappaport argued that the settlement acts recognizing the tribe limit its authority, subjecting the tribe to the same laws that govern the state and the town.
Chief Fortes, who is himself a member of the Wampanoag tribe, said he is frustrated by the meetings now being facilitated by the state.
"I'm looking for answers to the validity of the land settlement acts," he said. "I don't feel like we're getting to the crux of it."
But while the idea of a tribal police force is being debated, the tribe has already begun spending the federal grant funds. According to a spokesman at the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., the tribe has spent $76,000 on training, uniforms, rain gear, radios and bulletproof vests. The spokesman, Gilbert Moore, said the tribe had not provided his office with a detailed accounting of the spending.
According to a Justice Department fact sheet, the grant program "focuses on tribal communities which have limited resources and are affected by high rates of crime and violence."
The tribe's total land holdings are over 400 acres, made up of several parcels, most of them in Aquinnah. Housing for 100 tribal members is located on that land; the latest tribal census counts 992 members in all, both on and off the Island.
It has not been a smooth year for town-tribe relations. Last May, the town filed suit against the tribe, seeking a cease-and-desist order to stop the construction of a shed and pier without a building permit.
"The town is in litigation over land issues at the creek," said Chief Fortes. "It's not much different, except the issue we're dealing with is deadly force."
Brewing in the background of these disagreements is the chance that the political makeup of the tribe could change with this November's tribal election, at which the chairmanship and seats on the council will be decided.
Ms. Wright is running to keep her seat at the head of the tribal council but will face two challengers, tribal administrator Lori Perry and former chairman Donald Widdiss. The election is Nov. 18. A candidates' night, open to tribal members, is scheduled for Oct. 21.