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Narragansett Exclusive: Public rallies to Indian cause as state wavers

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CHARLESTOWN, R. I. -- After a violent state police raid that shocked Indian country and much of New England, the issue of the Narragansett Tribes' new smoke shop is now in federal District Court, where tribal leader Matthew Thomas said it belonged in the first place.

In a closed hearing July 16, U. S. District Court Judge William Smith urged the state and the tribe to settle the issue and avoid criminal prosecution, the Providence Journal reported. He scheduled a second closed hearing for 2 p.m., July 21. The court is hearing a Narragansett civil rights suit against the state, the town of Charlestown, the state police and assorted public figures over the July 14 raid, which left eight tribal members injured.

According to a tribal member, state police arrested seven tribal leaders, including Chief Sachem Thomas, first councilman Randy Noka and his wife Bella, council members John Brown and Hiawatha Brown and environmental police officer Thawn Harris.

In a scene captured by news cameras and widely broadcast on television and Indian web sites, a state police dog nipped a handcuffed Hiawatha Brown on the shoulder as state police held him face down on the ground.

Judging from the video, Chief Sachem Thomas tangled twice with several state policemen, once trying to block their entrance into the trailer housing the smoke shop. He also ended up on the ground.

State court released the leaders on low bail or their own recognizance several hours later, and they returned to the site of the smoke shop on the 1,800-acre Narragansett reservation to a spirited welcome. Tribal members and supporters have kept a vigil and ceremonial fire at the gravel parking lot ever since and have scheduled a large Unity Rally for 7:30 p.m. July 17, after press time.

Support for the Narragansetts has poured in from Indian leaders and organizations around the country. Former State Attorney General Arlene Violet, who after her elected term represented the Narragansetts in several major cases, has subjected the state's legal case to a withering critique in a series of talk show appearances and an interview with Indian Country Today. (See related story.)

Brenda Soulliere, chairwoman of the California Nations Indian Gaming Association (CNIGA), said "No elected official of a sovereign entity - whether it be the governor of a state, the president of a nation or the elected leader of an Indian tribe - should be treated in such a horrible, hostile, disrespectful manner."

She said the raid brought back "difficult memories" of her own arrest in 1981 when county officials raided the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians card club, in the start of the case that legalized Indian gaming.

Mohegan Tribal Chairman Mark Brown, himself a former law enforcement professional in Connecticut, criticized the raid as excessive. He said it was "a poor example for government-to-government relations." The Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation released a statement saying, "We are astonished at the level of intervention the state of Rhode Island has chosen in this matter, and we believe the level of force was inappropriate and unnecessary."

Chairwoman Marcia Jones Flowers said on behalf of the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation, "It pains us as Native Americans to witness such violence against Native people in this day and age, especially violence in response to the Narragansett's efforts to create a much needed, sustainable source of income for their people. The issue should be settled through federal court for a federally recognized Indian tribe, instead of through aggressive police raids."

She continued, "The Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation supports the Narragansett's exercise of their sovereignty, and we hope that all tribes in this country will soon be part of a healing time that will lead to better relations for us all."

The National Congress of American Indians said it was "shocked and disgusted by the blatant disregard for sovereign rights" in the state police raid. NCAI President Tex Hall said, "It has been decades since we have seen a state action as violent and destructive as that taken [July 14] by the State of Rhode Island."

He said the actions "remind us of the violent and racist practices that our people have suffered for generations."

Governor Donald L. Carcieri ordered state police to execute a search warrant on the smoke shop over the weekend of July 12, after negotiations with the tribe broke down and Thomas opened the shop to the public. Both the tribe and the governor indicated that the smoke shop opening on Friday July 11 was a reaction to the legislature's failure the previous week to schedule a state referendum on the tribe's decade-old quest for a casino.

According to the Providence Journal, a tribal delegation held a two-hour meeting with the governor Sunday afternoon, July 13, at a hotel in Warwick. Chief Sachem Thomas reportedly offered to close the smoke shop if the governor dropped his opposition to the casino referendum. Gov. Carcieri refused, and Thomas said, "O. K., I'll see you in court."

In a statement July 15, Carcieri said Thomas had asked him to "support casino gambling in this state, which I refused to do."

Thomas said Carcieri misrepresented his position, but in his own statement July 14, he added, "to sit here and tell you that emotions weren't running high among the tribe would be a lie, after 14 years of battling to produce some kind of economic development, especially a casino. So our folks were upset."

Thomas and a crew of reporters were waiting at the smoke shop the afternoon of July 14 waiting for what they thought would be the start of a court suit. According to the Providence Journal, he was surprised to receive a call on his cell phone around 1 p.m. from councilman Hiawatha Brown, reporting that a convoy of state police cars was heading down Route 2 to the reservation.

Col. Steven M. Pare, superintendent of the Rhode Island State Police, told the Journal that five undercover officers first entered the smoke shop trailer to serve a search warrant. Tribal employees refused to accept it. When after several minutes, the agents did not emerge, a group of uniformed troopers walked quickly to the trailer, pushing aside several tribal policemen. A melee erupted on the flight of steps to the trailer when a tribal member tried to keep the troopers from pulling the door open, and Thomas intervened.

Later that day, Gov. Carcieri blamed the violence entirely on what he called the "unconscionable" Narragansett resistance. But within 24 hours, he began to backtrack and point fingers at other members of the state government. Standing next to Col. Pare at a press conference, Carcieri said he had told the state police to withdraw at the first sign of resistance. He said he would appoint a commission to study the incident and issue a report within 30 days.

Carcieri, a Republican with currently high approval ratings in the polls, also pointedly said that he followed a legal course of action recommended by State Attorney General Patrick Lynch, a Democrat. Lynch reacted angrily, accusing the governor of scapegoating both the state police and himself.

Lynch said that Carcieri at the press conference felt it was "time to throw the colonel under the bus."

If the raid is now widely seen as a debacle, the legal strategy is also coming under devastating fire. Former Attorney General Violet told Indian Country Today that the issue of tribal sovereignty and immunity from taxation is far from the clear-cut matter the state assumed. (See analysis.)

She also said that the activity at the smoke shop wasn't even a crime. Under Rhode Island law, she said, sale of cigarettes without a tax stamp was a "violation," a lesser offence, subject to a fine of up to $100. She said that under state law, it was a more serious offence for a motorist to fail to stop for a pedestrian in a cross walk.

She also said the cigarette tax is supposed to be enforced by the state Tax Administrator, not the state police. And she expressed bewilderment at the tactic of serving a search warrant.

"If people think that serving that search warrant was right," she said, "then they must think it's okay for the state police to come on their property with a warrant if they are driving a motor vehicle without insurance."