BOSTON – A path to Massachusetts’ first tribal casino appears to be clearing faster than expected, but a potential lawsuit from an excluded tribe still threatens to complicate or even delay the process.

The Mashpee Wampanoag moved swiftly to take advantage of a provision in the state’s new gaming law that gives a leg up to a federally recognized Indian tribe in gaining the sole southeastern Massachusetts casino license.

The Cape Cod-based tribe acquired an option on land in Taunton, negotiated an agreement with city leaders, and on June 9 received a vote of confidence from residents. A compact with the state is likely to be reached by a July 31 deadline.

By contrast, the Wampanoag Aquinnah has hit nothing but roadblocks in its casino quest.

Voters in Lakeville and Freetown both dealt the tribe resounding defeats in nonbinding votes asking whether they would welcome a casino in their communities. But even more damaging to the Aquinnah’s hopes has been the state’s steadfast refusal to negotiate a compact, a position Massachusetts officials tie to a 1983 land settlement that secured tribal lands on Martha’s Vineyard.

The state contends that in agreeing to that settlement, which was later approved by Congress, the Aquinnah ceded future rights to tribal gaming on their lands or any future lands they might acquire.

The Aquinnah strongly dispute that and could pursue a federal lawsuit.

 

“It looked like a good deal at the time, because (the tribe) got land, they got federal money,” said Clyde Barrow, director of the Center for Policy Analysis at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth.

“The one catch in all of these land settlement agreements is that it says you will abide by the laws of your state. You are bound by your state; you basically waive your sovereignty,” said Barrow, a specialist on gaming issues.

The settlement made no specific reference to casinos, but said the tribe would be subject to state laws regulating or prohibiting games of chance.

Yet Barrow notes the agreement was signed prior to the 1988 passage of the federal Indian Gaming Act that established a regulatory framework for gambling on tribal lands.

“The issue has always been: Does that federal law override the settlement agreement?” said Barrow, adding the question had yet to be fully tested in the courts.

That could change if the Aquinnah pursue a federal lawsuit. Tribal leaders declined to be interviewed, but issued a statement saying all options would be weighed and “appropriate steps” taken to protect the tribe’s rights.

The tribe says the federal gaming law superseded the 1983 settlement and the Aquinnah had as much right to a gambling facility as the Mashpee Wampanoag.

The state disagrees.