The Narragansett Indian Tribe is still in the courts, challenging a Rhode Island Superior Court ruling that rejected the tribe’s claim that the 2012 Twin River table games referendum violated the same constitutional provisions that halted previous attempts by the Narragansetts to establish their own casino.
Chief Sachem Matthew Thomas holds no illusions that, after decades of the tribe’s attempts to establish a casino, open a tax-free smoke shop and even provide affordable housing for its members have been shot down by courts, legislators, governors and even the U.S. Senate, that the result is going to be any different this time.
“I personally know that the courts are going to rule that it is legal,”
Thomas said during a wide-ranging discussion Wednesday at The Call. “Let’s face it, that’s a lot of money for the state and they are just blatant and bold about it.”
The basis of their complaint, Thomas said, is the state was not required to jump through all of the hoops and provide all of the information – “including who our favorite aunt was” – that was demanded of the tribe when it sought a constitutional amendment to expand gambling to a site in West Warwick.
The constitution required, they were told in a Supreme Court advisory opinion, that, in Thomas’ words, “the state has to operate any gaming facility soup to nuts, basically. So anything we put out there, since the state wouldn’t be operating it fully, was unconstitutional.”
That meant the tribe had to seek to amend the constitution to allow them to run a casino. “They have amended it for seaweed and a lot of other things, but deep down inside I knew they weren’t going to amend the constitution for a casino, so naturally that went down in flames.
“Now when we see Twin River go to the General Assembly and get a ballot question without showing anything,” he said, “and there was no need to amend the constitution. No one can tell us, the tribe that the state operates Twin River, they don’t, the people who bought Twin River operate it, but it was considered constitutional.”
The chief likened the situation to the old children’s story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” where an emperor is convinced he is being fitted with a new suit of clothes that can’t be seen by anyone unfit for his position, when in fact there are no such clothes. He stages a parade in his new clothes and a child in the crowd points out that the emperor is naked.
With Twin River and the state, the tribe is looking and saying, “you are as naked as we were.” The tribe still does not believe the matter is constitutional or fair, he said.
The tribe recently marked the 10th anniversary of the Rhode Island State Police raid on a tax-free smoke shop it opened on their tribal land in Charlestown, another instance of where they have felt badly treated by the state.
When tribe members resisted the attempt to close down the smoke shop, a melee ensued that drew the attention of national media.
“I don’t smoke, but cigarettes are about $8 a pack, and tobacco itself, when you buy it is probably a dollar or two, the rest is taxes.
“When we tried to open a smoke shop and sold tax-free (then-Gov. Donald) Carcieri went berserk,” Thomas recalled. “Because we were dipping into what he considered the state’s pool. The tribe got their federal recognition and acknowledgement in 1983, the government said, ‘Go out and be a nation; take care of your folks.’ When we try to do that, to mirror what states do, that’s when we’re told, ‘wait a minute, you can’t do that.’”
Much of that recognition and acknowledgement was taken away, first when then U.S. Sen. John Chafee attached a rider to a 1996 appropriations bill that took away the tribe’s rights under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and, later, when Carcieri won a court case that took away the tribe’s recognition because they were not recognized as a tribe in 1934. The Narragansetts and other tribes around the country are trying to get Congress to institute what is called nationally a “Carcieri fix” to reverse that ruling with legislation.
The town of Charleston has fought for over a decade to stop the federal government from taking a 32-acre area of land in that town into trust to be used as a small housing project for elderly tribe members, the houses that were built there have stood, empty and deteriorating and Thomas said they likely will now have to be demolished.
“Everything is rigged in Rhode Island,” Thomas asserted. “I think it is a rigged state. In Rhode Island, in order to be straight, you’ve got to be crooked.” He pointed to former Speakers of the House of Representatives like Joseph Bevilacqua and Matthew Smith, who were subsequently convicted of crimes, mayors like Pawtucket’s Brian Sarault, Providence’s Buddy Cianci and Central Falls’ Charles Moreau who have gone to prison for deeds in public office.
He said the state’s current governor, Lincoln Chafee has been more open to the tribe than his late father, the senator, “he has given me an audience any time I wanted it, but that doesn’t mean anything came out of it. He’s not going to do anything to upset the people in South County.”
Thomas likens the governor to “the squirrel that runs out into the road and then doesn’t know which way to go. He’s a Republican, he’s an Independent, he’s a Democrat. Next he’s going to be the Green Party or Tea Party.”
Despite all that, Thomas says the Narragansetts “are always proud to be the first people in the state. Do we get along with them? No, we never have. But we’re not going anywhere. But even though we are treated in the fashion we are treated, I always try to explain that aggression or anger or lashing out, all that is going to do is set us back further. So it is like swallowing a lot of razor blades to live in the state and not be able to do what most tribes do.”
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