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Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe and Seneca Nation forge partnership.

By Gale Courey Toensing -- Today staff

AQUINNAH, Mass. - In its pursuit of a $1 billion casino resort in Massachusetts, the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe has forged a partnership with the Seneca Nation of New York in the kind of intertribal alliance that tribal leaders hope will become a trend in Indian country.

At an Oct. 24 press conference held in Boston, Aquinnah Wampanoag Chairman Donald Widdis and Seneca President Maurice ''Mo'' John Jr. announced their plan to pursue one of the three state-sanctioned commercial resort casinos that Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick has proposed.

If the governor's plan fails to gain legislative approval, the tribe will move forward with tribal casino under the federal government's regulations, the tribal leaders said.

''The Aquinnah Wampanoag and Seneca tribes have formed a unique development group that is ready to work with state officials to create a successful Native American gaming destination in Massachusetts,'' Widdis said in a statement. ''Unlike other proposals, an Aquinnah Wampanoag casino will be a locally-owned and locally-developed project that ensures that the significant economic benefits remain in the Commonwealth, and are not solely enjoyed by outside interests.''

The announcement came just a week after John and other tribal leaders at a major finance conference at Mashantucket urged the nations to seek support, partnerships and solidarity from each other.

''We need to get along with each other. We need to help each other because it shouldn't boil down to the haves and have-nots. Whatever your people need, do not be afraid to ask other tribes, because as we invest in our future we have nothing if we can't help each other. If we have no unity, we're just another top 500 corporation and that I don't think is our way,'' John told the conference audience.

Patrick's plan, which was introduced in September, would authorize three destination casino resorts with preference going to the Aquinnah Wampanoags of Martha's Vineyard and the Mashpee Wampanoags of Cape Cod.

The Mashpee Wampanoags, who received federal acknowledgement last spring, plan to build a casino on land they purchased in Middleborough. The tribe entered an agreement with the town, which voters approved by an almost 2 - 1 majority last July. But the proposal generated fierce controversy, which intensified in August when former Chairman Glenn Marshall admitted to lying about his military career and admitted his conviction as a rapist after a Cape Cod blogger exposed the facts.

Subsequently, an ongoing FBI investigation concerning Marshall's and other tribal leaders' financial transactions came to light. One of the tribe's transactions - a $50,000 contribution to an associate of convicted Republican former lobbyist Jack Abramoff - surfaced during the Abramoff investigation, which is also ongoing.

The Mashpees' financial investors are South African casino moguls Sol Kerzner and Len Wolman, who have reaped millions from their investments in the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut and the state-owned racinos in Rhode Island.

Before any casino can move forward in Massachusetts, Patrick's casino resort proposal must be approved by the Legislature, where casino opponents promise a strenuous debate.

The Seneca tribe is well-versed in the art of negotiation and other challenges on the road to Indian gaming. In just the past five years, the Seneca Gaming Corp. has built the hugely successful Niagara Casino & Hotel in Niagara Falls, the Seneca Allegany Casino & Hotel in Salamanca, N.Y., and the Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino in Buffalo, a temporary facility that will soon be replaced by a $333 million permanent casino in downtown Buffalo.

''We have a proven track record of bringing casino projects to completion in neighboring New York. We are very honored to be working with the Aquinnah Wampanoag and we want to help the Wampanoag replicate that success here in Massachusetts. Our casinos are beautifully designed and constructed, and faithful to the cultural traditions of Native Americans,'' John said at the press conference.

The two tribes have been working together for around 18 months, Widdis told Indian Country Today.

''I think the important piece is that this next generation of projects is going to learn from the mistakes of the projects before. We could easily have had a partner with a whole lot of money, but we would have been just a vehicle. The intertribal relationship, I think, as we go along is going to prove to be a unique relationship,'' Widdis said.

The two tribes have signed a pre-development agreement, Widdis said. While the details of the agreement are confidential, the Senecas will help the Aquinnah Wampanoags with lobbying, analyzing market conditions, financing, negotiating with public officials and securing permits and a casino license, which under Patrick's plan would be sold at auction.

''When we were going through the process of looking at people and their qualifications and bona fides, we found that even other tribes were more or less dealing from the point of view of an investor rather than a partner, and Seneca Nation was very sensitive to the fact that the tribes need to have partners they can trust, that they can deal with and have some of the same goals,'' he said.

''I think we found that in Seneca for this development piece and, hopefully, going forward we'll have the same relationship. We couldn't ask for anybody with any better expertise.''

The tribe is planning a full destination resort of the type that Patrick has proposed, Widdis said.

''We're talking in the billion-dollar range for the initial phase of the build-out. That would be a hotel and convention center, spa and amenities, such as an associated golf course, and retail and residential development in the area that would give us added value to the project and also allow us to bring the local community into the planning process.''

The idea, he said, is not just to plunk a casino down in a community.

''We're approaching this from more of a traditional point of view that we're going to be there for a while so we need to make this a project that's compatible with our interest and the community's interest; and whoever our partner is, we hope they will have the same philosophy,'' Widdis said.

The logical place for the tribe's casino would be around the New Bedford area in the tribe's aboriginal territory in the southeastern part of the state, but the tribe is open to considering other areas.

Widdis said he expects the Legislature to debate the casino bill next spring, and expect a three- to five-year timeline for completing the project.

The Aquinnah Wampanoags were federally acknowledged through the BIA process in 1987. The tribe has about 500 acres on Martha's Vineyard, which include an area of coastal cliffs that are sacred to the tribe.

The tribe made an earlier attempt to enter the gaming industry. In 1993, the tribe secured a pre-compact agreement with the former governor but couldn't get legislative support for taking land into trust or getting a gaming bill passed. The effort fizzled after 10 years.

Massachusetts currently has horse racing, a lottery and ''casino nights'' type gaming. Under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, a federally acknowledged tribe is theoretically allowed to develop gaming to the same degree that it exists in a state. A similar type of ''Las Vegas nights'' gaming in nearby Connecticut was the vehicle that allowed the Mashantucket Pequots to open their casino in 1993.