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Narragansetts look to Congress for justice

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CHARLESTOWN, R.I. - Narragansett Indians are turning to friends in Congress to remove the legislative handicaps highlighted in the violent Rhode Island state police raid on their newly opened smoke shop.

Chief Sachem Matthew Thomas told Indian Country Today that the tribe is seeking to overturn the Congressional 1997 "Midnight Rider" that deprived the Narragansett Indian Tribe of the right to use the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA), making it the only tribe in the country thus singled out.

He said that in the aftermath of the widely condemned July 14 police raid on the Narragansett reservation, national leaders are becoming aware of the "raw deal" his tribe has received in Rhode Island.

"There's been a tremendous public outcry about this incident from the non-Indian public," he said. "It's gone beyond the smoke shop and the casino to becoming a human rights issue. That's the biggest issue now."

He said tribal leaders were talking to U.S. Senators Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, John McCain, R-Ariz., and Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., about holding Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearings on the disadvantage imposed on the tribe by the Midnight Rider.

This measure, also called the Chafee rider after its author, the late U.S. Sen. John Chafee, R-R.I., might be vulnerable, Thomas said, because it was slipped into an Omnibus Appropriations Act in September 1996 without any input from the Congressional committees that decide Indian policy.

Sen. Chafee inserted the one-sentence measure to overturn a 1st Circuit Court of Appeals decision that upheld the Narragansett Tribe's right to conduct gaming. It amended the 1978 Rhode Island Claims Settlement Act.

The Narragansetts are expected to encounter resistance from the current Republican U.S. Sen. Lincoln Chafee, son of their nemesis. The question is whether they can mobilize an outpouring of national support in reaction to the violent images of the state police raid with police dogs.

Thomas said the tribe would not attempt to revise the language in the Settlement Act acceding to state law and jurisdiction on Narragansett land. He said the Act at most gave the state concurrent jurisdiction with the tribe and excluded civil regulatory control.

The crux of the argument, he said, is the 1994 Circuit Court ruling that the Chafee rider sought to reverse. The decision, which the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review, supports the Narragansett position, he said.

This issue will now be debated in U.S. District Court. Federal Judge William E. Smith in effect has frozen the tribal dispute with the state for at least two months, until he hears oral argument on the tribe's right to operate a tax-free smoke shop. Judge Smith ordered the tribe to keep the smoke shop closed until he decided the case. He also stayed any state criminal charges against tribal members, including Chief Sachem Thomas.

By all accounts, the raid backfired badly on Rhode Island Gov. Donald L. Carcieri, a Republican who to that point was highly popular in a Democratic state.

It also rallied regional tribes in support of the Narragansetts.

A Unity Rally on July 17 jammed the road past the 1,800-acre Narragansett reservation for most of the evening as tribal delegations came in cars and buses from Maine to Long Island. Speakers from at least 10 tribes addressed a crowd of about 1,000.

Some of the delegations carried fresh memories of their own sovereignty disputes with state governments.

Governor Barry Dana of the Penobscot Indians of Maine told Indian Country Today he sent support to the Narragansetts in gratitude for their backing in his own lawsuit against Maine two years earlier. Chief Sachem Thomas and Narragansett tribal councilman Randy Noka both attended the Circuit Court of Appeals hearing on the Maine tribes' case in Boston, along with a tribal police escort.

Some 40 members of the Shinnecock Tribe in Long Island came on a bus, led by Elizabeth Thunderbird Haile, tribal elder and matriarch of the award-winning Thunderbird Singers.

Attendees praised the organization of the Narragansetts, who handled traffic with their own tribal police. The tribe also provided hamburgers, hotdogs and soda for the rally.

The effort was all the more remarkable considering the high emotion caused by the raid.

"We're trying to roll with the punches," Thomas told ICT. "We're trying to get over the traumatic experience my tribe has suffered."