Election dispute prompts occupation at Indian tribe's office

AP News
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Posted: Dec 24, 2016 12:57 PM
Election dispute prompts occupation at Indian tribe's office

CHARLESTOWN, R.I. (AP) — A faction of the Rhode Island Narragansett tribe is occupying a tribal government building for a fifth day in a dispute over the tribe's leadership.

The occupying group is led by elected tribal council members who impeached Chief Sachem Matthew Thomas and want him to step down. He is refusing to do so.

One of the occupiers, Councilwoman Chastity Machado, said Saturday there has to be some kind of resolution. She said tribal elders and community members are meeting daily to find a solution.

A guide to the latest developments and key background about the dispute:

CHIEF SACHEM

The modern-day Narragansett sachem — a title used for centuries by some Northeast tribes — is an elected chief executive representing more than 2,400 tribal members.

Thomas, who has held office since 1997, said the sachem's annual salary is about $65,000.

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A DISPUTED ELECTION

A group of Thomas opponents held an election in July to elect a new Narragansett Tribal Council. In October, the new council members held a meeting to impeach Thomas. It was held outside the tribal administration building because tribal administrators wouldn't let them inside.

Thomas and his supporters don't recognize the July election or the October impeachment.

Both sides say a similar dispute arose in the 1980s involving some of the same families.

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THE OCCUPATION

The disputed election has left two competing factions, each calling themselves the Narragansett Tribal Council, claiming to be the leaders of the tribe.

The faction elected in July took over the administration building Tuesday morning and changed its locks. They slept on couches as well-wishers came bearing food.

The scene grew tense Thursday afternoon when Thomas supporters gathered outside the building and police officers arrived to monitor the dispute. Thomas and his supporters said they had tribal authority to retake the building if the occupiers don't leave, but they didn't enter the building and instead spent hours by a campfire outside.

The tension renewed Friday afternoon when someone cut the building's power. Utility provider National Grid said it tried to restore power but encountered a volatile situation and was advised by law enforcement to leave. The occupiers later began using a generator and lamps.

Machado said Saturday that tribal elders and community members were meeting daily to find a solution.

"There has to be some kind of resolution," she said. "We have to function as a nation. That is going to take a lot of negotiations.

Charlestown Police Chief Jeffrey Allen said Friday that federal attempts to find an independent mediator have been slow as Christmas approached.

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FLORIDA RESIDENCY

Much of the dispute has centered on where the sachem lives and if he is properly performing his duties. Thomas has a home in Port Charlotte, Florida, where he spends part of the year, but he says he is able to work remotely.

His opponents say the tribe's rules call for the sachem to live within 50 miles of the tribal headquarters. They point to Rhode Island voter registration records that show he moved out of the state in early 2015.

Thomas says he maintains a residence in Providence. The state capital is about a 50-minute drive from the tribal land.

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LAWSUITS AND MEDIATORS

Thomas' opponents sued in federal court last month to enforce his ouster, and Thomas countersued Wednesday after they took over the building.

U.S. District Court Judge John McConnell threw out both requests on Thursday, saying his court lacks jurisdiction because it's a question of tribal sovereignty. Rhode Island Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo says the state also has no jurisdiction but talked to Thomas on Thursday urging a peaceful resolution.

An independent mediator was being sought after U.S. Attorney Peter Neronha met with both factions on Thursday night. An investigator from the U.S. Interior Department also visited the building overnight and left Friday morning. The occupying group said it was pleased by the federal official's visit because it wants an investigation of the tribe's finances.

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THE NARRAGANSETT TRIBE IN HISTORY

Members of today's tribe are descendants of the aboriginal Narragansett and Niantic people who have lived for thousands of years along the shores of Narragansett Bay and in the area that encompasses Rhode Island and parts of eastern Connecticut.

The once-powerful Narragansett tribe survived near-annihilation by English colonists in 1675 and an effort by Rhode Island state government to break up the tribe in the 1880s. The tribal leadership has maintained an ongoing presence in southern Rhode Island and gained federal recognition as a tribal nation in 1983.

The tribe's leaders in 1636 granted land to Roger Williams, an exile of the Puritan Massachusetts Bay colony who founded what became the city of Providence. Good relations with English colonists ended in the 1670s when the tribe was nearly destroyed in King Philip's War.

This week marks the 341th anniversary of what's known as the Great Swamp massacre. The battle was fought on Dec. 19, 1675, not far from the current tribal headquarters in Charlestown.

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THE NARRAGANSETT TRIBE TODAY

The Narragansetts are Rhode Island's only federally recognized tribe. Their government 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 tribe's annual budget is about $7.5 million, much of it from federal grants. The tribe also oversees a few thousand acres of land in southern Rhode Island. Thomas helped advocate for state legislation passed this year that will allow the tribe to grow industrial hemp.

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Associated Press writer Steve LeBlanc in Boston contributed to this report.