Narragansetts seek reservation status and sovereignty on their settlement lands
CHARLESTOWN, R.I. - In its ongoing struggle for self-determination, the Narragansett Indians will ask the Interior Department to remove the tribe's 1,800 acres of settlement land from trust as a first step toward seeking reservation status and tribal jurisdiction on their land.
The tribal council approved the action Feb. 27. The tribe is preparing a package of documents that will justify the request, showing undue political influence and tampering by the state and town of Charlestown when the land was taken into trust in 1978 and afterwards, tribal council member John Brown said.
''There are flaws in the existing trust; there are issues and errors that have haunted us since 1978. There's been so much tampering by the state, and there's been at least 15 cases dealing with our trust land. So we're asking the Interior Department, and whoever else we have to go to, to remove the settlement land from trust, deed it back to the tribe under restricted status, and give us leave to put in a new trust package [application].''
The issues include such things as a survey that was never completed; rights of way; water and development issues that have never been addressed; parcels of land that were supposed to be turned over to the tribe; and land titles that were never validated, according to Brown.
''So, we have serious questions. And of course the biggest issue is the Rhode Island Land Claims Settlement Act, which has become our biggest hurdle,'' he added.
The Narragansetts' settlement act, like that of the tribes in Maine, has been used to erode the tribe's sovereignty and immunity in a chain of devastating legal actions over the past two decades.
The Narragansetts filed land claims in 1975 for more than 3,000 acres of aboriginal lands. In a negotiated settlement with the state in 1978, the 1,800 acres were put into trust with a stipulation that the state's civil and criminal laws apply on the land. However, there is no language in the document asserting that the tribe waived its sovereignty or immunity.
Congress did not ratify the state settlement act, but wrote its own law approving the land acquisition - a law that does not give the state civil or criminal jurisdiction on the tribal land.
Over the years, the tribe and its lawyers have argued that the federal act supersedes the state act; they've argued that the tribe was not federally recognized when the state land settlement was approved, so even if tribal authority had been limited by the state agreement, it should have been totally restored when the tribe received federal acknowledgement in 1983.
But they have lost those arguments in a series of legal battles with the town and state that have been upheld by majority decisions in the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals, and have virtually stripped the Narragansetts of tribal sovereignty and immunity.
At the end of 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a 1st Circuit majority ruling that the state has authority over tribal lands. The tribe filed the lawsuit after Rhode Island state police raided its smokeshop in 2003.
''We've had all these lawsuits over determining who actually has rights on these lands, which falls in the face of the Rhode Island Land Claims Settlement Act, which was meant to resolve these issues in 1978 and it hasn't resolved them. Clearly, these are not clerical defects; they're legal defects in the trust package itself,'' Brown said.
The week of Feb. 25, the Supreme Court agreed to review a petition from the governor of Rhode Island appealing the 1st Circuit ruling that Interior can take an additional 31 acres of land into trust for the Narragansetts. The case could potentially devastate tribes that were federally acknowledged after 1934.
The Narragansetts' efforts have the support of the United Southern and Eastern Tribes, a nonprofit coalition of 25 East Coast tribal nations that advocates for indigenous rights, and other Native organizations.
''All of the settlement acts for the Northeastern tribes need to be reopened and revisited. These tribes have had their sovereignty hammered in the courts and it affects Indian country as a whole,'' said USET President Brian Patterson, Oneida Indian Nation of New York. (The OIN owns Four Directions Media, parent company of Indian Country Today.)
''What the governor of Rhode Island is doing right now is detrimental to all of Indian country, and Indian country should be outraged. We'll be rallying around these issues, not only in Washington, but also on a state and local level where our sovereignty is being attacked openly - that's where the real fights are coming from: right in our own backyards.''