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Mars-Burke: To the state of Rhode Island

I am compelled to speak. In lofty documents that were composed to guide this nation's conscience it is written that all men are created equal. In Rhode Island, all men are created equal unless you happen to be Narragansett Indian, then you have arbitrary rights and few fair shakes.

We descendants of the Narragansetts do not want a handout just a hand up. Intimidation is one tactic that has rung continually in our ears since the coming of the early European settlers. Their leaders' lust for control over the land of the indigenous peoples was the field of contention then. Native self-determination and economic development are the battlefield on which we encounter opposition today. State government conspired gridlock continues to be the stumbling block for our emergence into present day growth and opportunity. The overly aggressive course of action played out before our eyes the week of July 14 at the Narragansett Indian Smoke Shop graphically support this conclusion. Images showed the Rhode Island State Police armed with attack dogs invading the sacred borders of our ancestral lands and physically assaulting women and children as well as our unarmed men rightfully defending their people and property.

The state's show of force from ruffian police action against the Narragansett Nation was as devastating a blow as the torching of the Indian church on sacred grounds just a few years ago. These misguided actions have caused lasting wounds: deep emotional scars on the tender psyches of our children and on all Americans of conscience and integrity. I never imagined such brutal handling of people could happen in our time and in our state this late in American history. This was totally unwarranted.

Since the arrival on our Narragansett shores by settlers well over 300 years ago, growing enmity between colonialists and Indian leaders over land has been a problem. This tug of war over ownership rights has been a thorn in the sides of both Indians and colonists. The conflict over Native rights has been a continual thorn in the sides of those elected to hierarchical positions governing "law and order." We continue to defend what is ours and they continue to overrun our diminished borders.

King Philip, Miantonomo, Canonicus, Ninigret and various other Indian leaders were drawn into conflict over basic human rights that other citizens freely took for granted. Our lands are always being coveted, rendering established treaties and deeds null and void. Large tracts of land have been stolen and rewritten in the back corridors of town halls and other government offices to facilitate whatever the state of Rhode Island has felt it needed or, better yet, wanted to possess. For example, the King Tom Farm area in Charlestown was originally land owned by Narragansett Indians and was to remain in their possession for perpetuity because the waterways were their lifeline. However, through cunning and deceit that parcel of land and other large tracts of property are now owned by others. An old Indian school was torched, burned to the ground and expunged from its site in the Narragansett woodlands for no other reason than to negate its existence and history. It has been known through the generations how this type of violation and abasement of the tribe and its holdings have been perpetually under siege. These are only a few examples. The list is long.

Colonialism, racism, imperialism, and arrogant elitism have been mainstays of Rhode Island government for generations, particularly in matters pertaining to the Narragansett. Here we are in 2003 and still need to learn the vital lesson in Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech.

The Narragansett Tribe's dream is to advance their nation and provide economic development and security using the best options available. Too often this dream has become a nightmare that won't go away. Whenever our tribal government works toward economic development, this action is quickly thwarted by powerful political figures and bills devised to keep such pursuits from reaching fruition. An example of this is the "Chafee Midnight Rider." This crippling blow came in the waning days of the 104th Congress, when Rhode Island Senator John Chafee pushed through an amendment to the 1997 Omnibus Appropriations Act removing the Narragansett Tribe's settlement lands from the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. This extended State gaming law onto the lands of the Narragansett. This action is a clear violation of the federal government's responsibility to protect tribes' right to self-government, making the Narragansett Indians the only federally recognized tribe in the nation denied their IGRA rights.

The Omnibus Appropriations Bill, totally unrelated to Indian Affairs, reopened the U.S. Government after it had been effectively shutdown. The so-called budget bill had no hearings on this issue, and further was veto-proof because of its larger purpose to reopen the Government. This "rider" passed in the middle of the night without proper notification, another example of political subterfuge. This amendment ought to be reversed in the name of fairness - righting the wrong.

The state's promises to assist the Narragansett Tribe in achieving an economic stronghold to improve living conditions and open opportunity are a farce. Based on Rhode Island's historical track record, state government has not been interested in supporting this tribe's sovereignty. They appear motivated only in further lining their own pockets, which has apparently been their major motivation in relations with the Narragansetts at any time. This is very sad as well as a blatant travesty of justice. It begs the question, why so small a populace incites so much attention and resistance whenever the tribe attempts self-determination, economic growth and development.

The event brought about by state leadership's poor judgment in the handling of the smoke shop opening removes the cloak and reveals the sentiments of Rhode Island's government leaders with regard to the Narragansett Tribe's sovereignty, economic pursuits, civil rights and basic human rights. Thankfully, this is not representative of over 60 percent of Rhode Island's citizenry according to one poll taken by one of our TV news stations. Presently, the Governor and Attorney General are "passing the buck" with the usual political rhetoric regarding the decisions that triggered this grossly mishandled fiasco with its negative backlash from the public at large.

One nation under God with liberty and justice for all! Where is the liberty and justice for the Narragansett people? Like any other ethnic group in America, our folks are hard working, law abiding, tax-paying citizens and have been for as far back as that basic right in a free society became available to us. Our tribal community is blessed with upstanding spiritual leaders, architects and builders, doctors and nurses, authors and teachers, journalists, artisans and musicians, engineers, federal officers and state policemen, community leaders and war veterans - you name it, we have it.

In spite of ongoing oppression, many have persevered to develop themselves in these various professions. These individuals have made significant contributions to America. We will continue to forge ahead with positive enlightenment for our children and fellow Americans. We will continue to nurture our neighborhoods and season our global community with friendship and open minds, which will further connect us in enriching relationships. These attitudes have been fundamental mainstays in coping and surviving skills for generations of dealing with oppositional forces in high places.

Our complaint is not with individuals but with the government's abuse of power, and disregard for a community of respectable people whose only desire is to coexist peacefully while serving their families and neighbors in a civil manner and with equal opportunity. We challenge our supporters and those who have said that the Narragansetts should have the same rights and privileges of all federally recognized tribes to stand on their convictions by using their freedom of speech.

Said Martin Luther King Jr., "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."

India Mist Mars-Burke was born in Rhode Island to David K. "Long Pine" Mars (former Chief of the Narragansett Tribe) and Diana "Red Doe" Spears Mars. She was reared on Tribal lands in Charlestown, the town which borders the tribe's trust land. She is a graduate of the University of Rhode Island. Ms. Mars is an education advocate in Maine and Rhode Island.