Rhode Island

Tribe Claims Land in Northeastern Rhode Island

By Richard C. Lewis, Associated Press
March 12, 2003

WARWICK, R.I. (AP) Members of an Indian tribe have filed a federal lawsuit seeking to reclaim about 34 square miles of land in northeastern Rhode Island. The territory extends from the east bank of the Blackstone River to the Massachusetts border, and includes Cumberland and parts of Woonsocket.

Members of the Seaconke Wampanoag Tribe claimed in a news conference Wednesday at an American Legion Post that the land belongs to them, based on a 1661 deed between an emissary of the English crown and the Wampanoag chief at the time.

The group said the land was illegally taken from it after the 1675 King Philip War, when victorious colonists divvied up territory and sent Indian tribes throughout the region into exile.

”It has been a terrible injustice to my ancestors,” said Chief Wilfred ”Eagle Heart” Greene, who claims he is the leader of the 300-member tribe.

The lawsuit was filed Feb. 27 in U.S. District Court in Providence. It names as defendants the state, the town of Cumberland and the city of Woonsocket. In addition to land, it also seeks federal recognition for the tribe.

A spokesman for Attorney General Patrick Lynch said the state would fight the suit by invoking a 1978 law passed by Congress ”that effectively extinguishes any claim to aboriginal or Indian title in Rhode Island.”

The validity of the lawsuit has been thrown into question, however, as a representative of the Seaconke Wampanoags said Greene no longer represents the tribe, and the lawsuit has no support from the group as a whole.

”We are in no way suing for any of this property,” said Michael ”Tenderheart” Markley, spokesman for the Seaconke Wampanoag Tribe based in Seekonk, Mass. ”We are involved in no lawsuits, and we have no plans to do so.”

Markley said Greene is a former president of the tribe, but no longer attends meetings or holds a position in the organization. Greene denies the claim, and said his group is the legitimate representative of the Seaconke Wampanoags, with a seal recognized by the state of Rhode Island.

The tribe’s attorney, Lesley Rich, said the Seaconke Wampanoags would not uproot residents from the region. Instead, he foresaw a deal that would involve a swap of land or a monetary settlement.

Greene, a former professional boxer, mentioned a tract in the White Mountains in New Hampshire for a proposed land swap; Rich noted land in Diamond Hill State Park in Cumberland as a suitable substitute.

The lawsuit does not outline a monetary amount sought by the tribe, and Rich would not discuss specifics. Yet the tribe’s researcher, Peter Bouer, said it could be in the billions of dollars based on the market value of the land and minerals extracted from it.

The lawsuit has ”substantial credibility,” Rich said, because it turns on a certified land deed and the subsequent forced ouster of the Seaconke Wampanoags from their ancestral home.

The tribe supplied documents from the state of Rhode Island and from the Plymouth County, Mass. Commissioners that mention an April 8, 1661 deed between Capt. Thomas Willett and Wamssutta, alias Alexander Chief Sachem of Pocanakett. In it, Willett agrees to reserve ”onely a Competent portion of land for some of the natives … to plant & sojourne upon.” The rest of the land, the document notes, would remain with Willett and his group.

The Seaconke Wampanoag tribe has been seeking federal recognition since 1998, according to Greene. Markley said the tribe is not seeking federal recognition, and the issue was one reason why Greene broke from the tribe.

Narragansetts and Governor Clash over Land Parcel

The State of Rhode Island and the Indian tribe are in a legal battle over a 32 acre parcel of Charlestown land

The clash intensified last week when Gov Lincoln Almond appealed the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs’ decision to take the property into trust for the tribe.

Almond, a gambling foe, said state and local laws would no longer apply to the property and the Narragansetts could build a casino there without statewide approval.

“The Tribe had repeatedly and consistently attempted to operate a casino gambling facility within the state,” the state said in a complaint filed in U.S. district court.

Almond’s attorney, Joseph Larisa, said the state doesn’t want land “ripped” from it’s civil and criminal jurisdiction.

” It opens up a pandora’s box of issues that don’t need to be there, not the least of which is gambling,” Larisa told the Providence Sunday Journal.

But the tribe says the state’s position is ironic. The state of Rhode Island wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the Narragansetts, since the land had been “ripped” away from the tribe., said the tribe’s chief sachem, Matthew Thomas.

“If anything, we’re just getting a drop back,” he said. “We’re very disappointed the state has taken this position.”

The tribe says it wants to use the parcel for housing and has started building a housing development on the site.

The tribe received a $4.1-million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for the project. But a HUD audit last year blasted the Narragansetts for not following HUD spending guidelines
and recommended that the agency either salvage the development or
cut its losses.

Since then, HUD has pledged to continue working with the tribe.