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Sunday, April 23, 2017

Now we know more about why the Camp Davis deal went sour

Tribe rejected deal conditioned on yielding sovereignty
By Will Collette

For a time, it looked like the Narragansett Indian Tribe’s lands in Charlestown would be greatly enlarged and existing gaps in the 1978 borders of Narragansett tribal lands would be filled in.

The state of Rhode Island had offered the Tribe three parcels of land, two of them in Charlestown, as compensation because the Route 95 Providence Viaduct project in downtown Providence had improperly disturbed the site of an ancient Indian village.

Under the agreement, the state would turn over the 105-acre abandoned Camp Davis property (off Route 2) and the smaller nearby Chief Sachem Nighthawk property, as well as an important Salt Pond Archaeological Preserve in Narragansett to the Tribe.

But recent news reveals that this land transfer has come completely off the rails. The Narragansett tribe has filed suit in US District Court against the Federal Highway Administration seeking to block further construction on the I-95 project because RIDOT violated the land transfer agreement.

Image result for schoolhouse pond charlestown
The Providence Journal reports the Tribe cites actions by RIDOT that began about eight months into the negotiating process when DOT demanded the Tribe waive its sovereignty rights over the use of the property.

Because the Tribe refused the state demand, RIDOT filed notice on February 15 that it intended to cancel the land transfer offer. On March 20, RIDOT filed THIS REPORT explaining why it decided to pull the plug on negotiations.

The Providence Viaduct disturbed ancestral Narragansett sites. This area
is close to the spot where history tells us Roger Williams landed in 1636
and was greeted peacefully by the Narragansetts, the dominant tribe in
what we now call Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. The tribe's
suit wants work on the Viaduct stopped until the state and feds keep
their agreement (Photo from VBH)

According to the Narragansetts’ attorney John Killroy Jr.:
“Right now the tribe has an agreement that it would like to be enforced. It is important that these historic properties be preserved.”
John Brown III, Narragansett Tribe historic preservation officer, told the Westerly Sun:
“The deal they wanted to make in order to turn it over to us was that we had to waive our immunity and any authority we had on the property. We would own it in name only and they’ve constructed [the agreement] so that if we broke the law, it would revert back to them.”
The Camp Davis controversy does not come as a surprise, given its historical context.

The Charlestown Citizens Alliance (CCA Party) through its puppet Town Council sought to intervene, if not block, the Camp Davis land transfer from the time the transfer proposal went public in 2013. At minimum, the Town sought to impose tight restrictions on the Tribe’s use of the land.

Negotiations commenced but very little information leaked out as the weeks, months and then years passed without any word on when, or even if, the transfer would be finalized.

When the Narragansetts bought 31 acres outside the tribe’s official boundaries to build affordable housing for low-income seniors in the tribe, the town challenged their right to do so without town approval.

They took the case all the way to the US Supreme Court where a 5 to 4 majority, led by the late but not missed Justice Antonin Scalia issued the horrific 2009 Carcieri v. Salazar decision that rules that an unclear definition in a century old statute limited the sovereignty rights of tribes that won federal recognition after 1934.

That ruling not only affected the Narragansetts but over 500 Native American nations across the U.S. 

Advocates for "equal justice under the law," the words carved over the entrance to the US Supreme Court, have since sought but failed to get Congress to enact a “Carcieri Fix” to again grant all federally recognized Native American nations the same rights under law.

In my coverage of the stalled Camp Davis land transfer, I had speculated that perhaps Charlestown’s (meaning the CCA’s) implacable opposition to Narragansett sovereignty would become a poison pill.

Image result for joseph larisa & east providenceThere is ample reason for the Narragansetts to feel the Town of Charlestown is out to get them. After all, Charlestown has kept former East Providence Mayor and attorney Joe Larisa on a $25,000 a year retainer for no other purpose than to watch and stop the Narragansetts from doing anything the town doesn’t like. CLICK HERE to see Larisa’s most recent billings.

Larisa’s duties include monitoring and challenging any legal or regulatory matter that might have the effect of bolstering the Narragansetts’ sovereign rights, even going to absurd extremes.

One such example of the role Larisa plays in shaping Charlestown's adversarial relationship with the Tribe was the bizarre 2014 misdemeanor case of Norman Gonsalves and Peco Barber. 

A central figure in this case is former Charlestown Police officer Evan Speck, whose lawsuit against Charlestown has gotten quite a bit of media attention. CLICK HERE to read Speck’s complaint against the town.

According to court records filed by both the Tribe and the Town, the following facts are not in dispute.

On April 13, 2014, ex-Officer Speck responded to a complaint from a resident that someone on a dirt bike or ATV may have fired shots in the woods behind his property. Hearing shots or a dirt bike/ATV are NOT rare occurrences in Charlestown. Speck called in to say that he was following tracks he found behind the property that seems to lead to the Narragansetts' tribal land.  CLICK HERE for Speck’s report.

Speck was told by dispatch to wait for an escort from Narragansett Tribal Police. But for reasons never specified in any of the court records, he went into tribal land alone until he reached Schoolhouse Pond where he confronted a group of Narragansetts.

Heated words were exchanged, but fortunately back-up arrived including Narragansett Tribal Police. Training and common sense on both sides allowed this chapter in a very long story to have a peaceful ending.

Gonsalves and Barber were charged with a misdemeanor of “obstructing” and “not listening to verbal commands” from former CPD Officer Speck.

Normally, a matter like this is handled quickly and without fuss, either with charges dropped or a deal. But this case instead turned into a grandstand for the Tribe and Charlestown Town Government to argue the issue of Narragansett sovereignty.

In July 2014 the Tribe filed a Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Jurisdiction especially because Speck proceeded onto tribal land even though he had been told by CPD dispatch to wait for the Tribal Police.

Charlestown responded by having Assistant Charlestown Town Solicitor (and state Representative) Bob Craven prosecute the case on behalf of the State and the Town. Charlestown’s Special Counsel for Indian Affairs Joe Larisa was brought in to argue the Town’s objection to the Narragansetts’ claim of sovereignty.

It went to a three-day trial in December and ended on January 15, 2015, Judge Joseph T. Houlihan granted the Tribe’s motion to dismiss the charges against Norman Gonsalves and Peco Barber.

The Westerly Sun reported that Judge Houlihan ruled that Officer Speck should not have gone onto private property (i.e. the Narragansett Tribe’s land), that it was “no different than any officer going onto private property, such as “Raytheon in Portsmouth” without a warrant.”

So ended a complicated and unfortunate case that probably never should have happened.

CPD Chief Jeff Allen continues to work with Tribal Police to foster a positive working relationship. While noting that CPD has primary jurisdiction on all law enforcement matters within the town, he strives for a cooperative relationship.

Given the current state of affairs, I believe Charlestown, and in particular the Charlestown Citizens Alliance, has to loosen its unbending opposition to the Narragansetts’ right to sovereignty. As it stands, the CCA Party treats the Tribe as if it was simply a neighborhood with no special rights or privileges.

Actually, they treat the Tribe with less rights and privileges than other neighborhoods. The CCA Party is fine with granting special rights to those neighborhoods led by CCA Party donors and supporters. Arnolda, Quonnie, Sachem Passage, Sonquipaug are all places that have gotten town resources and regulation changes as rewards for political fealty.

The Narragansetts are asserting their rights based on history and, to no small extent, on justice. They assert they have the right to live and to prosper and to use their land in the interests of their own people. They have struggled since 

Charlestown does not acknowledge any of those rights exist without the town’s permission.

How can we have peace and racial justice in Charlestown without the Town acknowledging the Tribe’s right to “due dignity and respect?”