After spending much of the last two years in political hot water over gun-toting rangers, sheds with no building permits and the stewardship of a beloved general store, the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) now finds itself in a state of inner turmoil, its members at odds with each other.
"I've never seen us so fractured as we are now," said June Manning, a Wampanoag member who handles the tribe's accounts payable department. "It's very tense here."
The only federally recognized Indian tribe in Massachusetts and the Vineyard's only indigenous people, the Wampanoags number just under 1,000 in membership, roughly 300 of whom live on the Island.
On Sunday, they have the opportunity to vote in a tribal election that could bring a change in leadership for the first time in 10 years.
The race for the tribe's top post - chairman of the tribal council - is a three-way contest, and the gloves came off weeks ago, with candidates openly sparring with one another in the pages of the tribe's newsletter and supporters trading accusations about everything from criminal records to bloated travel accounts and fiscal mismanagement.
Not surprisingly, money is a top issue in much of the politicking. Since winning federal status in 1987, the tribe has found its funding lifeline in the nation's capital. In the last fiscal year that ended in September 2000, a little more than $2.9 million in federal grants flowed into tribal headquarters in Aquinnah, according to an official audit of tribal finances obtained by the Gazette.
But grants are just one part of the picture. While much of the inner workings of the tribe remain closed to outsiders, the Wampanoags have sought a more public role on the Island in the area of economic enterprise. An attempt to build a Sears outlet in West Tisbury failed, but three years ago the tribe bought Back Alley's, a sandwich and bakery business, and took over operation of Alley's General Store in the center of that town.
Both moves saddled the tribe with debt - almost $1.5 million in all - and payments totalling over $12,000 a month, according to that same audit. Back Alley's alone is costing $8,000 a month and has been closed since January with no signs of a new tenant.
Overall, the tribe's financial picture looks troubling. The audit cited several accounting weaknesses, some of them left uncorrected despite having been noted in earlier audits. And that document also pointed to another debt - $11.5 million - that would come due only if the tribe ever succeeds in building a casino.
Legalized gambling, to be sure, is an issue still looming over the tribe. More than four years after losing their bid to build a casino in the Fall River-New Bedford area, gambling remains a lightning rod topic that no candidate can risk ignoring. In one tribal newsletter, a member suggested it would be political suicide to oppose tribal efforts to open a casino.
Tribal chairman Beverly Wright, who is seeking a fourth three-year term, insists that most tribal members still want a casino.
"I'm in favor of anything that would make us self-sufficient," she said. "For the Navajos, it's tourism. For us, we don't have a lot of options here. The potential is gaming."
Careful to deflect any blame for the tribe's failure to make gaming a reality during her 10 years at the helm, Mrs. Wright argued that the tribe is still young.
"We can document our history back 10,000 years, but we've been federally recognized for just 13 or 14 years," she said. "A lot of people think a lot more stuff should have been done. If we had been in the dominant society - maybe. But it's taken us a longer amount of time."
Mrs. Wright is convinced gaming remains a viable option. The tribe has found another casino backer, the Tunica-Biloxi tribe in Louisiana, and commissioned a study that argues the merits of giving the Wampanoags exclusive rights to operate a casino in Massachusetts.
But any plan will need approval in the state legislature, and state Rep. Eric Turkington (D-Falmouth) sees little hope. "I haven't perceived any appetite to revisit that issue," he said. He added that while he wouldn't oppose any new tribal gaming initiative, he did not believe a casino would benefit either the state or the region.
Both of Mrs. Wright's challengers viewed the latest talk about gaming as a political ploy aimed at winning votes.
"With gaming, I don't see anything happening at this point," said Laurie Perry, the tribal administrator who is campaigning for the chairmanship. "There are headlines before the election and then nothing. The climate in the state legislature hasn't changed."
Ms. Perry expressed doubts that most tribal members still view a casino venture as a priority. "I think they've seen enough," she said. "The window of opportunity is closing."
Candidate Perry instead saw information technology as the better bet for economic development, partnering with a high-tech firm and winning government contracts.
The other candidate, Donald Widdiss, the former tribal chairman who served between 1987 and 1991, focused on the tribe's Island-based businesses and pointed to their struggles.
"If we can't run a basic business that started off with the support of an entire community, how can we run a big business like a casino?" he said.
Still, Mr. Widdiss said he would go after gaming if elected.
"I would pursue gaming and use negotiators who are qualified to do what you need to do," he said. "It's an opportunity that you have to pursue, even though it's an exploitative endeavor."
A successful casino would likely make tribal members rich, and Mr. Widdiss was blunt about the equation. "The benefits [to Indians] outweigh the risks or the damage to others," he said.
Despite the pragmatic thinking, Mr. Widdiss acknowledged that federal recognition and the potential for gambling have in some ways damaged the tribe. Greed, he said, has pushed aside tribal values.
"The tribe has gone from being a conscience-driven entity, which asks, ‘What's best for us?' to, ‘How's this going to benefit me?'" he said. "It's a product of a dependency-based society. There are grants and contracts, but no soul."
But Mr. Widdiss didn't offer any simple solution. Like the other two candidates, he spoke of the need for a cultural center or a museum as a way to reclaim traditions.
But what about the tribal infighting? The challengers blamed the current chairman for an atmosphere of distrust.
"There are old feuds people are still carrying on, but the divisiveness is top-down from the leadership," said Ms. Perry. "She [Mrs. Wright] has put forth her personal agenda for so long."
Mr. Widdiss said that while the tribe is supposed to be egalitarian, perks - from committee appointments to travel junkets, dental work and septic systems - flow from access to the right people in the tribe.
"The more you adopt dominant culture values, the bigger the split in the tribe," he said.
On issues outside the tribe, all three candidates defended tribal sovereignty, supported the creation of their own police force and called for better relations and communication with town leaders in Aquinnah.
"I'm very much an advocate for collaboration with the town," said Ms. Perry. "You don't just put something on the town and say this is how it's going to be."
Town-tribe relations now are a mess, according to Mr. Widdiss. Indeed, the controversy over tribal rangers carrying guns and starting their own police force has ended up with the state attorney general's office trying to mediate a solution.
And both sides are embroiled in a lawsuit over a shed built by the tribe near the new shellfish hatchery without a building permit from the town. Tribal leaders argue that since the shed is on Indian land, they don't need a permit from the town.
While Mr. Widdiss supports tribal sovereignty, he said it needs to be balanced with common sense. "What we do affects the community much more than it would if we had 400 acres in Oklahoma," he said. "Right now the tribe is viewed with suspicion. We need a cooperative agreement."
Mrs. Wright countered that she has taken steps to communicate more with town and Island officials. "I'm attending all-Island selectmen's meetings," she said. "We need to express to the outside community why we are doing certain things . . . not for their permission but just to inform them."
Still, Mrs. Wright showed that she resents what she considers prying into tribal affairs. Asked about tribal debt due to casino lobbying, she told the Gazette to file a request under the freedom of information act. And when pressed for details on the troubles at Alley's General Store and the firing of the store manager, she said those actions came from the tribal enterprise board, not her office.
"If Cronig's fires someone," she said, "nobody asks them questions."
Much of the campaign has played out in the pages of the Toad Rock Times, the tribe's monthly newsletter, which has grown fatter as the election nears. The September issue was just 12 pages; by November, it was 32, filled with political letters.
Despite all the correspondence, fewer than 20 tribal members bothered to show up for a candidate forum in late October. Not even Mrs. Wright came. She opted to attend a conference of eastern tribes in Florida, saying that her presence at the conference was crucial to secure federal funding that could be endangered in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Besides the race for chairman, incumbent tribal secretary Eleanor Hebert is facing a challenge from Abigail Jardin. The two incumbent council members, Robert McDiarmid and Roque (Billy) Monteiro, are running for reelection against challengers Jason Baird and Naomi Carney.
If 300 people vote, that would be considered a high turnout. Absentee balloting is not allowed. The polls open Sunday at 10 a.m. and close at 2 p.m.
Mrs. Wright has told voters that officials in Boston and Washington who hold the keys to grants and possibly a casino deal "look at the [tribal] leadership and how stable the government is."
But tribal members have already ignored Mrs. Wright when she asked them "not to air our dirty laundry" in the Toad Rock Times.