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Residents support repeal of law blocking Narragansett gaming

CHARLESTOWN, R.I - The Narragansetts' years of legal struggles to gain the normal sovereign rights that other federally recognized tribes enjoy may gain traction now with a new poll that shows Rhode Islanders by a majority of 2 to 1 support federal legislation to return the tribe's right to conduct gaming on its reservation.

The poll, conducted by the Massachusetts Dartmouth Center for Policy Analysis and released in February, shows 56 percent of the state's residents believe Congress should repeal what is known as the ''Chafee amendment'' - a 10-year-old amendment to a federal spending bill that stripped the tribe of its federal right to conduct gaming on its lands. About 28 percent of the 449 respondents oppose the congressional action, and 16 percent are undecided, the poll showed.

The CFPA is an independent center at the University of Massachusetts that conducts multiple ongoing regional gaming studies ''because of the increasingly significant public policy implications of gambling's fiscal, economic and social impact,'' according to the center.

The Chafee amendment, written by the late Rhode Island Sen. John Chafee, requires the tribe to win state and local voter approval to build a gaming facility on its land.

Sixty-one percent of respondents did not know that the Narragansett Indian Tribe is uniquely deprived by federal legislation of its right, the report said.

''Of the nation's 567 federally recognized tribes, only the Narragansetts have been stripped of their federal right to conduct gaming on their reservation,'' the CFPA report says.

By a similar margin of votes, residents said the tribe should be able to offer the same kind of video slots offered at Lincoln Park and Newport Grand, the two state-operated gaming facilities where simulcast betting on horse and dog races and state lottery tickets are available. The casinos are the state's third-largest source of revenue to the state budget.

The report may bolster the Narragansetts' continuing efforts to gain sovereignty over their land and their cultural and economic future.

After a meeting with Chief Sachem Matthew Thomas in February, Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., said he was confident a congressional panel will hold hearings this spring on action to repeal the Chafee amendment, The Associated Press reported.

''Its day is long overdue. We've got to shed light on the problem first before we decide what remedy to come up with. It's not a Narragansett issue; it is an issue of sovereignty that affects the whole country,'' Kennedy said, adding that one of the major reasons Chafee's amendment should get a full and fair hearing now is because it was not originally crafted ''in the light of day.''

The tribe's sovereignty and immunity has been further hampered by rulings from the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals, which may be tainted by an alleged conflict of interest on the part of Senior Judge Bruce Selya, Tribal Council member John Brown said.

''It was Chafee who got Judge Selya appointed to that seat and he's protecting the legacy of a deceased man that put him in as a circuit court judge. In the past, we have asked him to recuse himself and he refused,'' Brown said.

Karen Tatz, Selya's judicial assistant, told Indian Country Today that the judge ''has no recollection of being asked to recuse himself and he would suspect it's untrue. The court record would speak for itself.''

The full panel of the appeals court last year reversed an earlier three-judge ruling that the state had violated the tribe's sovereign immunity during a state police raid at the tribe's smoke shop in 2003.

Seyla, who wrote the reversed decision, argued that the Narragansetts waived their sovereign immunity in a 1978 land claim settlement act between the tribe and the state despite the fact that there is no such language in the land settlement act Congress passed that theoretically supersedes the state's settlement act.

The state so far has succeeded in using that argument in its court actions against the tribe to impose both civil and criminal state jurisdiction over the tribe's 1,800 acres.

The tribe is currently awaiting another crucial decision from the full court concerning a 31-acre parcel outside of the settlement land. A three-judge panel twice upheld the BIA's decision to take the parcel into trust for the tribe's elder housing, but the full six-judge panel re-heard the case for the third time in January.

''It's not the whole court, it's just this one judge who is making terrible decisions that are affecting all of Indian country,'' Brown said.

Indeed, the tribe's land into trust case was deemed so important to Indian country - and its opponents - that it drew briefs and amicus curiae status from the Native American Rights Fund, the National Congress of American Indians, individual tribes and organizations, 10 state attorneys general and the National Coalition Against Gambling Expansion.

Michael Healey, a spokesman for Attorney General Patrick Lynch, said the latest CFPA poll does not impact the attorney general's office.

''I don't say that meaning to sound disrespectful. It's simply in terms of the legislation that's being introduced [to repeal the Chafee amendment], the Congress is going to do what the Congress is going to do. Our job is to uphold the laws. We're not a policy-making agency; we're prosecutors. If Congress changes the law, basically, the federal pre-emption clause kicks in and our state laws would have to comport with that,'' Healey said.

The state sets policies both by its actions and its failure to act, Brown said.

''The past and current governor's office and the past and current attorney general's office are prosecuting the Narragansett Indian Nation with all these actions opposing us. That's setting policy. And the state has never initiated formal state recognition of the Narragansetts as a sovereign Indian nation, since we were federally recognized. That's also setting policy,'' Brown said.