In Tobias Vanderhoop’s new office there is a chair engraved to Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, the first Wampanoag tribal member to graduate from Harvard in 1665. The chair was a gift from a friend, Mr. Vanderhoop said. On the wall nearby is a framed letter from Caleb to his benefactors in England, written in Latin.
“He’s thanking them for having the faith in him that he could become educated and do things for his tribal people,” Mr. Vanderhoop said.
This week Mr. Vanderhoop officially took over as the new tribal chairman of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah). He was elected in November on a campaign of inclusivity, unseating two-term chairman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, and inaugurated on Jan. 4.
“Every chairman of the tribe has his particular way of operating,” Mr. Vanderhoop said in an interview with the Gazette on Thursday at his office. Dried sage burned in the background. “Some work more independently, others are more involved in the operational aspects of it. I’m a true moderate.”
Mr. Vanderhoop served as the tribal administrator for four years until 2012 and previously worked in the tribal court and education programs. He ran his first tribal council meeting last weekend where he encouraged council members to bring forward their ideas and concerns, he said.
“My first priority is to come together with the tribal council and work with our tribal administrator . . . to figure out the resources we have here, maybe hire consultants, and go through a more focused process and create a set of goals and a vision,” he said.
Mr. Vanderhoop’s first general membership meeting will come in February, where the discussion will focus on gaming, an issue that has taken center stage in tribal politics in the past few years.
“We’ll be reaching out to our tribal members directly to help them understand what it is we’re asking them to consider and we will have what we expect to be a very meaningful discussion,” he said. “As the people make their determinations, then my views will evolve.”
Mrs. Andrews-Maltais was a proponent of bringing a gaming facility to Aquinnah and in the days leading up to the election announced that the tribe was moving forward with plans to build a casino in Aquinnah. In response, Gov. Deval Patrick issued a lawsuit against the tribe seeking to block any attempt by the tribe to open a casino in Aquinnah. The complaint, filed in the state Supreme Judicial Court, claims the tribe breached a 1983 land claims settlement agreement by taking steps to allow gaming in Aquinnah. The tribe has since filed a petition to have the case moved to federal court.
Mr. Vanderhoop said he will “absolutely” continue to pursue the case in federal court.
“That is the appropriate venue,” he said. “Whenever there is a question of the tribe, our rights are federal rights and the federal courts have jurisdiction over determining the outcome of that type of case.”
Mr. Vanderhoop heads to Washington, D.C. next month for his first meeting of the U.S. Southern and Eastern Tribes conference. Agenda items include settlement acts and taxing tribal lands.
“It’s an opportunity to come together and make sure we are supporting each other on issues we need to bring to [Capitol Hill],” he said. “I’ve been around for a very long time, and most of the leaders of other tribes have seen me in every capacity I’ve worked for the tribe in. All of those leaders are now my peers . . . . I’m very excited to reconnect with them.”
Mr. Vanderhoop planned to meet with tribal administrator Cheron Watchman later in the day to discuss what agenda items they would like to bring to the table. Ms. Watchman, a former tribal administrator for the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California and a member of the Navajo tribe, began work in June.
Ms. Watchman is working on negotiating with the Steamship Authority to provide discounted fares to tribal members, as well as looking into ongoing natural resource issues and further developing the education program. She said she is also looking forward to including more cultural traditions into everyday operations.
“When I walked into the building this morning, I smelled the sage . . . . I was so excited,” she said. “Without our culture, language and spiritual traditions, we don’t know who we are as a people. It’s so important that we have blending of traditions with the modern.”