Tense standoff in occupation of tribal building

AP News
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Posted: Dec 22, 2016 10:00 PM

CHARLESTOWN, R.I. (AP) — The takeover of the headquarters of a Rhode Island Indian tribe turned into a tense standoff Thursday as the tribe's impeached leader pledged to regain the building by force if its occupiers didn't leave peacefully.

Narragansett Chief Sachem Matthew Thomas, who was impeached in October by tribal members who say he spends too much time in Florida, said the elected tribal council that took over the building Tuesday was not legitimate and will have to vacate it.

"The law's going to be followed and there are no exceptions," Thomas said just before sundown Thursday. "If people occupied the State House up in Providence or the Capitol Building in D.C., how long do you think it would be tolerated?"

Two competing factions, each calling themselves the Narragansett Tribal Council, claim to be the leaders of Rhode Island's only federally recognized tribe.

One faction took over the administration building in Charlestown Tuesday morning and changed its locks. They slept on couches Tuesday and Wednesday nights, as well-wishers came bearing pots of food and Christmas trees. But the scene grew tense Thursday afternoon after Thomas supporters gathered outside the building and local and state police officers arrived to monitor the dispute. A tribal elder's attempt to mediate didn't work. As night fell Thursday, Thomas supporters lit a campfire outside the building and the chief said he would let his tribal police force decide what to do next.

Misty Delgado, a lawyer for the faction inside the building, said she was concerned the situation could become physical. After monitoring the dispute for days, Charlestown Police Chief Jeffrey Allen said Thursday evening he was seeking guidance from state and federal authorities.

Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo also was seeking outside help. Her spokesman David Ortiz said the Democratic governor was working with U.S. Attorney for Rhode Island Peter Neronha to request that the federal Department of Justice send an independent mediator to resolve the dispute.

"Neither Governor Raimondo nor the State has any jurisdiction to get involved in a Tribal election," Oritz said in a statement Thursday night.

Both sides involved in the dispute had been hoping for a resolution Thursday morning when a federal judge held a conference call to consider a request for a temporary restraining order against the occupying tribal members. Thomas and his supporters filed the request Wednesday, saying the building occupation is unlawful.

They also said it was important that tribal members regain access to things such as heating assistance and college tuition checks, which are sent from an office inside the building.

They said they are concerned as well for the safety of the children in the building and have contacted the state Department of Children, Youth & Families.

But U.S. District Judge John McConnell ruled that his court lacked jurisdiction because it's a question of tribal sovereignty. He dismissed the restraining order request, and another one filed by the competing group several weeks ago.

Thomas then received a tribal court ruling that he said allows his supporters to regain the building.

Those who took over the building Tuesday said they had no alternative because Thomas has refused to relinquish power after they impeached him in October.

"The people's voice wasn't being heard, and we were being dictated to by an impeached chief and an illegally-appointed council," said Councilwoman Chastity Machado, who was elected to her seat in July.

Thomas doesn't recognize the election or his impeachment as legitimate.

One of his supporters, Medicine Man John Brown, told The Westerly Sun on Wednesday that his group would remain calm.

"We are trying to follow the rule of law and keep calm and we're going to keep cool," Brown said. "If it takes a lot of time to extricate these people from the building, then let it take the time that it takes."

One of the women occupying the building, Bella Noka, said it was mostly women and some children inside the building Thursday afternoon because they didn't want the men getting hurt. She said they wouldn't leave unless there was some kind of federal intervention. The federal Bureau of Indian Affairs had said in a Wednesday statement it wasn't intervening.

Thomas called his detractors "impostors" last month after they sued him in federal court, seeking his ouster from the leadership role he's held for nearly two decades.

His residency has been disputed among tribal members for more than a year. State voter records show his Rhode Island voter registration was canceled in March 2015 because he moved out of the state. Thomas said earlier this month 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.