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Thursday, March 9, 2023

Narragansetts protest contradictory bills on tribal sovereignty

Tribe demands respect for the process of recognizing sovereignty

By Will Collette

The Narragansett Indian Tribe, based in Charlestown, spent years and exhausting effort to win federal recognition, despite resistance from Rhode Island leaders who even went so far as to "detribalize" the Narragansetts - i.e. declare they no longer existed - in 1872. This led to the confiscation of all but one acre of tribal land in Charlestown.

In 1983, the Tribe won federal recognition after meeting a series of requirements laid out in federal law after winning back a substantial portion of their lands through the Settlement Act of 1978.

Despite the Narragansetts' federal status, Charlestown has not recognized the Tribe's sovereign rights, using Indian-fighting lawyer Joe Larisa to fight any effort by the Tribe to improve the lives of its members and prosper.

CLICK HERE to hear Larisa describe his views at a public hearing.

Larisa was due to submit comments for the town in opposition to new US Interior Department rules that would clarify the process for taking tribal owned lands into trust. The close of the public comment period was March 1.

I know of no other town in New England that employs a lawyer to fight a local tribe. We pay Larisa $25,000+ a year.

Now the Tribe faces two new pieces of legislation under consideration in the General Assembly that address the issue of tribal sovereignty in ways that the Tribe oppose. 

H-5020 would write into Rhode Island law more or less the same criteria used by the federal government for tribal recognition, even though federal law supersedes state law, raising the question of why RI needs such a law.

H-5021 would essentially throw the criteria in H-5020 out the window and simply grant recognition to the Seaconke Wampanoags. The Seaconke Wampanoags are organized as a non-profit 501(c)(3) corporation and have been recognized by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. They filed a letter of intent to seek federal recognition 20 years ago, but have not filed a completed application.

In a statement from the Tribe, Chief Sachem Anthony Dean Stanton noted the irony:

"The State of Rhode Island has never acknowledged the Narragansett Tribe but has historically opposed the Tribe’s exercise of its governmental powers."

This, despite federal recognition of the Narragansetts. Yet, as the Tribe points out, the state is considering state recognition of the Seaconke Wampanoags without requiring them to go through the process laid out in federal law as well as in the proposed criteria in H-5020.

Here is the news release issued by the Tribe on Tuesday: 



STATE OF RHODE ISLAND – The Narragansett Indian Tribe opposes recognition by the State of Rhode Island of any Indian group, or tribe, absent a comprehensive study that definitively finds that the Indian group, or tribe, has continually existed as a tribal nation and has continually acted as a government with authority over its members within the State of Rhode Island.  This should not occur without a thoroughly documented petition by the tribe, or group, that is reviewed by the State of Rhode Island acknowledging that there is adequate historical, anthropological, and genealogical evidence to grant recognition. 

Merely having tribal members living in Rhode Island does not meet this test. There are many people from other Tribes living in Rhode Island, that does not make them a community worthy of acknowledging them as a government 

Currently, two bills have been introduced in the House of Representatives.  The first, 2023-H 5020 would establish a process by which an Indian group, or community, could be recognized as a tribe.  The second, 2023-H 5021 ignores that process and by legislative fiat would grant recognition by the State of Rhode Island to the Seaconke Wampanoag Tribe.  

After decades of research, documentation and review the Narragansett Tribe was federally acknowledged and recognized by the United States as an Indian Nation.  (See, 48 Fed. Reg. 6177-78, Feb. 10, 1983).  The Narragansett Tribe is the only federally recognized and acknowledged Indian tribe in the State of Rhode Island.  The findings and conclusions of its federal acknowledgment were that the Narragansett Indian Tribe “in aboriginal times, inhabited the area which is today the state of Rhode Island.” 

House Bill 2023-H 5020 more closely tracks the process used by the Federal government to acknowledge a Tribe.  While 2023-H 5021 falls far short of requiring any substantive review. 

Chief Sachem Anthony Dean Stanton of the Narragansett Indian Tribe states - “No tribal group, or community, should be recognized absent a review by qualified experts of a petition containing sufficient historical, anthropological and genealogical evidence warranting recognition.” 

Chief Stanton further questions “Why would the State of Rhode Island, without review by experts, consider legislation that grants recognition to a single group, while at the same time, consider a second bill that establishes a recognition process?  The State of Rhode Island has never acknowledged the Narragansett Tribe but has historically opposed the Tribe’s exercise of its governmental powers.”