Dancers at a Narragansett Tribe powwow in Rhode Island. Photo: pintandpoppy
Opinion | Federal Recognition

Brian Lightfoot Brown: Narragansett Tribe marks federal recognition milestone

35 Years And Counting

By Brian Lightfoot Brown

Rhode Island's Narragansett Indian Tribe had its official status as a tribe illegally taken away by the state of Rhode Island over the course of hearings and shady deals between 1880 and 1884. This assisted Rhode Island politicians in circumventing the Non-Intercourse Act, and selling off tribal lands.

The tribe continued to fight for their tribal status and land to be restored to them. The tribe successfully regained 1,800 acres in the Rhode Island Indian Land Claims Settlement Act in 1978, though the land was still bound by Rhode Island state laws and taxes, except for aboriginal fishing and hunting rights. This settlement held the seeds of an intense debate between the tribe and the state.

On April 11, 1983, the Narragansett regained federal recognition status after a century of being held back by Rhode Island's leaders. The tribe feels that this federal status should supersede the portion of the Settlement Act that bounds the reservation in Charlestown, Rhode Island to state laws and taxes.

The state, of course, feels differently.

The Narragansett have been held back by a Chafee provision to the Indian Gaming Regulatory that passed in 1997 and now by the decision in Carcieri v. Salazar. But fighting the state hasn't been the tribe's only battle.

Many factions within the tribe continue to have internal disputes over various aspects of tribal business. Despite the internal disputes and the struggles faced by the Narragansett people when facing opponents from outside the tribe, the tribe has survived to reach 35 years as a federally recognized Native American tribe.

The Narragansett still face an uncertain future as a pending election for Chief Sachem is on the horizon amidst internal debate, while still hoping to get the much needed Carcieri fix that has eluded them since 2009.

Now if even for just a day, the Narragansett could feel pride in knowing that they have come together in the past and they gained a victory 35 years ago today, when they had their federal status finally restored.

April 11, 1983.

Brian Lightfoot Brown is a citizen of the Narragansett Tribe. This opinion is his own.

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