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Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Latest Camp Davis court case goes against the Tribe

Institutional racism wins another round in Charlestown

By Will Collette

Broadside for the Sale of the Narraganett Indian Reservation, 1882.
Courtesy of Tomaquag Museum
The Narragansett Indian Tribe has been taking a beating from Charlestown’s European immigrant settlers since at least 1675 when colonial forces tried to wipe out the whole tribe at the Great Swamp Massacre.

After the slaughter, it was slavery for some survivors, other hid and someremaining other members of the tribe had their land stolen. 

In 1880, the General Assembly declared the Tribe no longer existed and in 1882, we took all the remaining tribal land except for one acre.

In 1978, the Tribe's lawsuit to recover their land resulted in a settlement that restored 1800 acres to the Tribe. There was a catch: nothing could be done on that specific land without local permission.

In 1983, the federal government formally recognized the Narragansetts as a sovereign nation, but the term “sovereign” depended on who has the power to interpret it, as the following chain of events shows.

The town blocked the Tribe's plan for a casino in 1992 and a bingo hall in 1995. State Troopers and Charlestown Police fought a pitched battle with tribal members in the infamous 2003 Smoke Shop Raid.

In 2006, voters rejected a state referendum on the Tribe’s effort to partner with Harrah’s to build a casino in West Warwick where the town was eager for the jobs it would create. A West Warwick casino would also have ended any further fear of a Charlestown casino.

The Carcieri case started with the Town's fight to prevent this planned
senior housing project from being completed. The town thought the
Tribe planned to build a casino here. See if you can spot slot machines
The Tribe wanted to build affordable housing for its low-income elderly population on new land they purchased outside the settlement area in 1991. 

The Tribe attempted to use its rights under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 to put that land under trust with the US Interior Department and thus outside state and local jurisdiction.

That led to years of litigation ending up before the US Supreme Court which issued its 2009 Carcieri V. Salazar decision. In a nutshell, the decision denied coverage under the Indian Reorganization Act to all 500-plus tribes across the US who won federal recognition after 1934. Of course, that included the Narragansetts.

Charlestown, former Gov. Don Carcieri and the Charlestown Citizens Alliance (CCA) celebrated that decision as a major win for white people who sought to have the final say over what Native Americans do, even on their own land.

Fact sheet produced by the House Natural Resources Committee
Congress may at some point pass what’s called the “Carcieri Fix,” a law that clarifies its intention that the Indian Reorganization Act applies to all Indian nations consistent with the motto “Equal Justice Under Law” that is carved over the front portal of the Supreme Court.

But in the meantime, the Tribe  keeps fighting for its sovereign rights. 

On March 15, the Tribe lost another case this time before the US District Court for the District of Columbia.

The Tribe had sued the US Transportation Department and the state to honor a pledge and legal obligation to turn over land as compensation for the destruction of historical archeological sites under the I-95 reconstruction project in Providence.

The Tribe was due to receive this compensation under the provisions of the National Historic Preservation Act.

In 2013, the RI Department of Transportation bought the old Camp Davis property for $1,650,000 intending it to be given to the Tribe along with other historic properties connected to the Tribe, costing a total of $8 million. 

The transfer seemed to be going smoothly until the CCA-led Charlestown Town Council got up in arms. 

Charlestown deployed the town’s Indian fighting Special Counsel Joe Larisa who convinced the state that the Tribe should be required to renounce any claim of sovereignty over the use of the property even though the land was NOT part of the original 1978 Settlement deal. The state agreed. 

That would mean the Tribe could only use the land for purposes approved by the state and Charlestown.

Larisa never misses a chance to attack the Tribe's sovereign rights as this
  YouTube video screed shows (screenshot from EcoRI video). In this event,
Larisa is speaking against Invenergy's proposal to use tribal water for
its now-defeated gas plant in Burrillville. By this point in the fight,
the project was already beaten, so Larisa's snide remarks (note how he mocks
a previous speaker) were totally gratuitous.
This demand was a deal-breaker for the Tribe who insisted that only the original settlement lands were subject to such a condition of use.

For nearly a decade now, the Tribe has been trying to get the land it was promised as compensation under the law without having to give up its sovereign rights. 

So far, that hasn’t worked, although this latest court setback was largely on procedural grounds, leaving open the door to further legal challenges.

Charlestown’s perpetual state of war with the Narragansett Indian Tribe is the heart of this issue. It’s been almost 350 years since the Great Swamp Massacre. The casus belli is Charlestown’s intention to maintain its dominion over the Tribe come what may. Some would call it racism – I certainly do and so do tribal leaders.

We are the only town in Rhode Island with an anti-Indian specialist on retainer as a Special Counsel. The CCA says that’s because we’re the only town with an Indian nation on its lands. But the towns hosting Foxwoods and Mohegan Suns casinos have no equivalent to Injun Joe Larisa on their payrolls.

The CCA fought like hell, even violating Roberts Rules of  Order by taking three votes, to keep Joe Larisa on the payroll. 

Even former Eagle Scout Cody Clarkin voiced his strong support for Larisa despite the Boy Scouts'  strong denounciation of  institutional racism.

Larisa has dug in deep on the Camp Davis controversy, seeing it as a terrible threat to white supremacy in Charlestown. As he told WRNI reporter Alex Nunes:

“If the tribe gets land in federal trust, unrestricted, it'd be ‘Indian country…And when you have ‘Indian country,’ the land is largely exempt from state laws, state civil laws, state criminal laws, and town ordinances. It means they can largely do what they want, just like a sovereign nation within our borders.”

In this respect, Larisa’s anti-Indian views closely resembles those of the state of Oklahoma’s arguments against the 2020 US Supreme Court decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma.

In that ruling, the Court ruled that state and local governments must respect federally recognized Indian nations’ sovereign rights, This ruling did not apply to those tribes, like the Narragansetts, who were screwed by the Carcieri decision.

In the two years since McGirt, Oklahoma has asked the Supremes to reconsider the McGirt decision more than 30 times and has been denied each time. 

Larisa should consider moving to Oklahoma where he can litigate against Native Americans all he wants. He'd probably make more than the $25,000 a year Charlestown pays him.

From time to time, the CCA has tried to paper over its racism through token gestures, such as last weekend's walk through the Frances Carter Preserve as a tribute to famed runner Ellison "Tarzan" Brown. 

Of course he deserves it, and so do his children, especially the late Sis Brown, tribal organizer. I had the privilege of working with Sis in the 1970s. 

If the CCA really wanted to honor Tarzan Brown, they would support firing Joe Larisa and begin working WITH, not against, the Tribe.

Instead, Charlestown has waged a shameful war against the Narragansett Indian Tribe for the past 345 years. During that time, we’ve seen crimes against humanity, slavery and fraud on a massive scale. Enough. Let’s stop pretending this is about zoning and face down institutional racism. And stop it.