Tribe locked in power struggle over absentee chief

AP News
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Posted: Dec 11, 2016 11:03 AM
Tribe locked in power struggle over absentee chief

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — The chief of a New England tribe who spends part of the year living in Florida won't step down after being impeached, sowing division among the Narragansett Indians who are Rhode Island's only federally recognized tribe.

Chief Sachem Matthew Thomas is calling his detractors "impostors" after they sued him in federal court seeking his ouster from the leadership role he's held for nearly two decades. Dozens of tribal members gathered for an outdoor meeting to impeach the 55-year-old chief in October. When he refused to surrender his position, an elected tribal council sued him last month.

His residency has been a tribal controversy for more than a year. State voter records show his Rhode Island voter registration was canceled in March 2015 because he moved out of state. Thomas said in an interview that the time he spends in Port Charlotte, Florida, isn't a problem because he monitors tribal business remotely and maintains a residence in Providence.

"The chiefs are constantly traveling. Constantly. We use Skype, we use electronic communication, faxes," Thomas said. "It doesn't make a difference where I'm at. The job still gets done."

The modern-day sachem — a title used for centuries by some Northeast tribes — is an elected chief executive representing more than 2,400 tribal members. The tribal government based in Charlestown, Rhode Island, also includes a police force, a health clinic and nine-member elected council and other official roles, such as medicine man and an appointed administrator. Thomas said the sachem's annual salary is about $65,000, and the tribe's annual budget is about $7.5 million.

He said his impeachment wasn't legally valid. He also doesn't recognize a new slate of tribal council members elected in August, which is why his staff wouldn't let them into a tribal building in October to hold an impeachment proceeding.

"They had a meeting in the parking lot and they tried to impeach the chief sachem," Thomas said. "You've got to hold it in a legal setting."

An attorney for the tribal council members who sued Thomas did not return calls and emails seeking comment.

The dispute has divided tribal members and saddened some elders who said it has tarnished the tribe's proud history and its long-fought journey from near-annihilation by English colonists in 1675 to gaining federal recognition in 1983.

Paulla Dove Jennings, a former tribal councilwoman who once ran against Thomas for sachem, said she attended the impeachment meeting. She called it "a sad day for our nation" and said it was legitimate and followed the tribe's bylaws, even though officials "refused to open the doors."

Dove Jennings is an oral historian whose father was the tribe's last traditional war chief. Her 98-year-old mother, a tribal elder, until recently kept a portrait of Thomas in her home. But the family has lost faith in him and wants new leadership.

"I don't know where his heart is. I don't know what happened to him," Jennings said. "His main job is to be there for the people. If you can't talk to him, can't ask him a question, can't attend a meeting, he's not doing his job. That's what he gets paid for."

A judge is expected to hear arguments in the federal lawsuit in several weeks. Tribal members want the court to force Thomas to relinquish his duties and give them access to the paperwork that will allow them to assume tribal duties and hold an election for a new chief sachem.

"This is a sad day for our people but it's going to turn around because I know the creator is hearing our prayers," Jennings said. "Once those who are running us into the ground wake up — and they will wake up — we will then again be the mighty Narragansett people. That is my prayer."