California Tribes “Outraged” at Rhode Island State Police Treatment of Narragansett Tribal Chief

Press Release
For Immediate Release


California Tribes “Outraged” at Rhode Island State Police Treatment of Narragansett Tribal Chief

July 15, 2003

California tribal leaders are outraged at the violent behavior Rhode Island State Police displayed Monday in raiding the Narragansett Indian Tribe’s smoke shop.

The raid left several tribal leaders, including Chief Sachem Matthew Thomas, bruised and bloodied. Six troopers wrestled Chief Thomas to the dirt and handcuffed him before he was led away. Eight people were treated at a local hospital.

“It is inexcusable that a tribal leader would be target of violence by Rhode Island law enforcement officers,” Brenda Soulliere, chairwoman of the California Nations Indian Gaming Association, said Tuesday.

“No elected official of a sovereign entity – whether it be the governor of a state, the president of a nation or the elected leader of an Indian tribe – should be treated in such a horrible, hostile, disrespectful manner.”

State police, some wearing flak vests, took seven tribal members into custody after they attempted to block the officers' entrance to the tribe's lands.

Governor Don Carcieri described the day's events as “truly regrettable, but truly necessary.” Tribal members said the scene smacked of the civil-rights struggles of the ‘50s and ‘60s, when police used dogs and clubs to halt sit-ins and protests.

“There's no need for dogs. There was no need for a SWAT team-type atmosphere,” Thomas told the Providence Journal newspaper. “It looked like something out of Mississippi.”

Soulliere, who was vice chair for the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians when the tribal card club was raided in 1981 by county law enforcement officials, said the assault on the Narragansett tribal facility brought back difficult memories.

“It was a humiliating experience,” Soulliere said of her arrest in connection with the 1981 raid. Misdemeanor charges were later dismissed.

“I would think 22 years later non-Indian governments would learn to treat tribes with more respect,” she says. “But things have gotten worse, more violent.”

The Narragansett raid stemmed from an ongoing dispute over the Narragansetts' status as a federally recognized nation with sovereign rights. It heated up further when the tribe announced plans to open a tax-free tobacco shop against the state's wishes. The tribe delayed its opening this spring, at the governor's request.

“The governor of Rhode Island has apparently forgotten that the founder of his state, Roger Williams, was a friend of the Narragansetts,” says CNIGA Executive Director Jacob Coin.

“Williams believed Rhode Island should be a safe harbor from tyranny and oppression,” Coin says. “Gov. Carcieri apparently believes his state should be a haven for tyranny and oppression.”

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