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Narragansetts explore options under gaming restrictions

CHARLESTOWN, R.I. - The Narragansett Indian Tribe does not have the market cornered when it comes to fighting opponents of Indian sovereignty and casinos, but it faces something unique in all of Indian country: a state government that has wrested for itself a monopoly on all gaming activities.

In an interview with Indian Country Today, Chief Sachem Matthew Thomas discussed the ongoing legal assaults that have eroded the tribe's sovereignty and impounded its right to open a gaming facility under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. Of the nation's nearly 570 federally recognized tribes, only the Narragansetts have been stripped of this right.

''When I step back and take a hard look at what's happened with this tribe - and I'm not talking about historically, I'm talking about in the last 15 years or so - I think it's a master game plan. From the late senator who passed an amendment that stripped us of our rights in 1996 to all the powers that be and all the money involved, it's all just trying to stop our tribe from gaining any kind of economic self-sufficiency or any type of economic power. I just think it's blatant prejudice. I can't put it any other way,'' Thomas said.

The state has defeated or helped defeat the tribe's every attempt to pursue gaming on its 1,800-acre settlement lands or elsewhere while building its own gaming empire that includes a lottery and two hugely successful slot operations. The gaming monopoly pours more than a quarter of a billion dollars into the state coffers each year.

The monopoly rests on a state law that says all gaming, including slots and casino games, is a ''lottery'' and therefore under state control.

''The state collects an incredible amount of money from gaming - over $270 million from the video slots last year,'' said Joe Larisa Jr., a special attorney who represents Charlestown in its legal battles against the Narragansetts.

The slot facilities are owned by private companies but operated by the state, which takes 60 percent of the profits.

''With a state/tribal compact, the state gets a little baby share of 25 percent,'' Larisa said.

The tribe or any other entity that wanted to develop gaming would have to provide the same 60 percent to the state, Larisa said.

The amendment Thomas referred to is the ''Chafee Amendment'' - a 1996 rider attached to a federal spending bill by the late Sen. John H. Chaffee, a Rhode Island Republican - that stripped the tribe of its right to conduct gaming on its lands without state and local voter approval.

The amendment was initiated ''for no reason in our mind other than we're about a mile away from the late senator's family compound, as the crow flies. The bluebloods in the wealthy beachfront properties would not want an Indian casino nearby,'' Thomas said.

Residents rejected a constitutional amendment that would have allowed the tribe to pursue a gaming project, and in November 2006 voted down a hotly opposed initiative that would have allowed the tribe to form a casino partnership with Harrah's Entertainment. It wasn't clear if residents were against the proposed casino location or the partnership with Harrah's. But in March, a new poll from the Massachusetts Dartmouth Center for Policy Analysis showed residents support federal legislation to restore the tribe's right to conduct gaming on its land by a 2 - 1 majority.

Now the state is facing competition from Massachusetts, where the newly acknowledged Mashpee Wampanoags plan to develop a resort casino on the scale of Connecticut's Foxwoods Resort and Casino and Mohegan Sun.

In a twist of irony, the competition will come from Mohegan Sun developers Sol Kerzner, a South African-born international gaming magnate, and Len Wolman - the partners who own the Rhode Island Lincoln Park slot facility that generates so much cash for the state.

In Maine, where the state operates a lottery and has allowed a non-Native out-of-state company to own and operate a racino while denying the indigenous tribes the same right, a spokesman for the Penobscot Indian Nation said that if a current initiative for slots fails, the tribe will consider a constitutional lawsuit based on based on the equal protection clause and the Sherman Antitrust Act.

Thomas said the Narragansetts are exploring all possible avenues of legal redress, including a constitutional action.

''This can't continue. What they've done to us is just out and out wrong. There's got to be some law somewhere that is being violated. We're looking,'' Thomas said.