How Rhode Island trumped the Narragansett Indians
by Justin Wolff
Right now, the Narragansett Indians' proposal for a casino in West Warwick is
just that, a proposal, an abstract structure propped up by numbers. There have
been no ribbon cuttings or construction-site protests. Debates over the casino
occur in a colorful array of diagrams and charts, and positions are stated in
reams of figures -- percentages, ratios, allotments, and statistics. The
numbers, to use a favorite idiomatic expression of both opponents and
proponents of the casino, boggle the mind.
It wasn't always just about the math. The fiscal obsessions of casino
lobbyists obscure the frenzy of emotions that led to the Narragansetts' current
proposal. Before last June, when West Warwick residents turned out to
overwhelmingly support the casino in a non-binding referendum, the proposal had
spawned hooting and hollering at town meetings, ardent Congressional testimony,
and controversial legislation regarding Native American rights. And it won't be
just about the math for much longer. The West Warwick referendum assured that a
casino bill would get to the State House. The bill, which will reach the House
Finance Committee in the next two months, will ask the General Assembly to
decide whether the proposal should be put to voters on the November ballot.
Regardless of what happens to it, few New Englanders are aware of the political
intrigues and power struggles that led to the bill.
Hiding behind the predictable endorsements and criticisms of the casino
proposal are several dramas that illuminate the peculiar relationship between
the Narragansetts and Rhode Island's politicians. First, when it comes to
gaming, the Narragansetts have had terrible luck. Second, Rhode Island has not
treated the tribe fairly. And third, over the last several years, the right of
Rhode Islanders to vote on gaming proposals has been under siege.
The Narragansetts propose a 250,000-square foot casino -- the same size as
Mohegan Sun -- that will feature 3000 slot machines and 150 table games.
Backers estimate the casino will generate about $375 million in annual revenue.
The state will be entitled to about $63 million, West Warwick to about $19
million. In addition, they promise that the casino will create 3000
construction jobs and will employ 4200 full-time workers by the fifth year.
Opponents, naturally, claim the figures are inflated. Not so, says the tribe.
The Narragansetts claim that most people are more interested in why they
aren't proposing to build on their reservation land in Charlestown, in southern
Rhode Island. Besides being complicated, the answer to that question causes
tribal members pain. For many of them, it's a reminder of the kind of
injustices they suffered in the 18th and 19th centuries, and it provides a
bitter contrast to the ease with which their historical rivals -- the Pequots
-- established Foxwoods, the world's largest casino, a scant 30 miles away in
Since the early '80s, the Narragansetts have watched tribes across the
earn staggering profits from casinos. The Pequots and the Mohegans succeeded
because federal law made it fairly easy for them to build and because they
enticed the state with sweet revenue-sharing deals. After Foxwoods opened in
1992, the Narragansetts began to dream of their own casino. It should have been
easy; theoretically, the same federal laws would be on their side. What they
could not have anticipated was the vehement opposition to their plans by Rhode
Island's leading politicians, especially the late US Senator John Chafee.
During the last decade, he and Governor Lincoln Almond used their power to
prevent the tribe from cashing in on gaming. According to Matthew Thomas, the
chief sachem of the Narragansetts, the embargo on tribal gaming in Rhode Island
is a modern form of the colonial massacre. "It goes back hundreds of years," he
says. "Nothing has changed."
The first European documentation of the Narragansetts was in 1524, when
Giovanni de Verrazano visited Narragansett Bay and noted a large native
population organized under powerful "kings." Roger Williams acquired land use
rights from these sachems in 1636, at the same time that colonists were
fighting against Connecticut Indians in the Pequot War. The Narragansetts
joined forces with the English against the Pequots and participated in a dawn
massacre of Pequot villagers on May 25, 1637. (That massacre is the tragedy
that lies at the heart of the moving Pequot Museum, a massive, modern, and
savvy historical presentation located at and funded by Foxwoods.)
Several years later, in 1675, a military force of colonists from
and Connecticut massacred a group of Narragansett men, women, and children at
Great Swamp, in South Kingstown. Following the massacre, the tribe was confined
to reservation lands in southern Rhode Island. For the next 350 years, the
Narragansetts were subjected to the same kind of savage persecution as most
tribes in the country. In the 18th century, for example, the state abolished
the position of sachem and forced the tribe to settle dubious debts by
returning reservation land.
In 1978, the tribe settled a land suit it had filed against the State of
Island. Like so many land deals between tribes and states, this one has proved
a lemon for the Narragansetts. They received 1800 acres of swampland, one half
of the acreage they sought, and subjected themselves to certain state laws in
return. These state laws, it turns out, have kept them from building a casino.
After some more wrangling, the Narragansetts received federal recognition on
April 11, 1983.
Between 1600 and 1700, the tribe's population fell from about 10,000 to a
500. Today, the tribe has about 2700 members, most of whom live in the state.
The Narragansetts are headquartered out of a modest building in Charlestown and
live around a reservation that has a health center, a simple church, several
homes, and a cluster of trailers in a cul-de-sac. According to the most recent
US Census report (1990), the per capita income of the Narragansetts is 40
percent less than that of the average Rhode Islander, and 26 percent of the
tribe lives below the poverty line.
Reservations remain mysterious places to most Americans -- sovereign nations,
supposedly, that before gambling depended almost entirely on federal aid.
Reservations operate according to a set of arcane laws and Supreme Court
rulings dating to 1831, when Chief Justice John Marshall upheld Indian
sovereignty. He ruled that state law does not apply on reservations and that a
tribe is a "distinct political society . . . capable of managing its own
affairs and governing itself." However, Marshall insisted that tribes were
subject to federal laws. At the same time, because reservations lack natural
resources, the court ruled that the federal government is obligated toward
Indian nations. "One fact that is not in dispute," Marshall ruled, "is the
federal government's responsibility for the welfare of the Indian tribes and
their members . . . . All observers agree that, in this regard, the federal
government's record has been poor, at best."
Over the years, the government has tried to promote a few mainstream economic
activities in Indian communities, like agriculture, natural resource
development, and various forms of industry and commerce. These efforts failed,
and in some cases, according to one government report, "have had a disastrous
impact on tribes." Nevertheless, federal expenditures on behalf of Native
Americans declined from 1975 to 1999. Now, nearly one of every three Native
Americans lives below the poverty line and suicide rates on reservations are
nearly triple of those elsewhere in the country. "In Indian country," US
Senator and presidential candidate John McCain stated in a Senate debate in
1995, "a good, safe home is a rare commodity . . . . Simple conveniences that
the rest of us take for granted remain out of the grasp of many Indian
Gambling was the wild card that reversed many tribal fortunes and toppled
the fragile foundations of Indian governance.
Gaming has existed in this country since the colonial period. Lotteries helped
fund the Revolutionary War, westward expansion, and prestigious institutions
like Harvard and Princeton. Indian gaming, originally part of tribal
ceremonies, existed before Europeans came to America. Faced with acutely
depressed economies, tribes turned to gambling as a primary revenue source in
the late '70s. A few prescient tribes saw that gaming would not only replenish
their economies, but that proceeds could be used for cultural preservation and
investment in other development projects. At a time when state lotteries
proliferated, several tribes in Florida and California began raising revenues
by operating bingo games offering larger prizes than those allowed under state
law. When the states threatened to close the operations, the tribes sued in
federal court. In two rulings -- Seminole Tribe vs. Butterworth (1979)
and California vs. Cabazon Band (1987) -- the courts said that if a
state outlaws a form of gambling, then tribes within that state may not engage
in that game. However, if a state regulates a form of gambling, then tribes
within that state may engage in that game free of state control. In essence,
the courts formally recognized the right of Indians to conduct gaming
operations on their own land, as long as gaming was not prohibited by the
The ensuing rush by tribes to open casinos was chaotic. Basic perceptions
about reservations turned upside down. No longer did Native Americans see them
as infertile places of confinement; reservations became havens that promised to
cultivate great fortunes and shield tribes from greedy state governments. The
greatest irony of Indian gaming -- and perhaps in the long run, its greatest
tragedy -- is that during a very brief period, tribes went from being the most
economically disenfranchised groups in the country to aggressive capitalists
spouting conservative rhetoric about unfair taxes and overregulation. But to
see Indians as somehow above vulgar profiteering, as guardians of whatever
holistic spirituality we lost long ago, is condescending and racist, precisely
the same kind of thinking that has kept them depressed for so long. The courts
recognized this fact time and again: if states can profit from gaming, they
ruled, Indians can profit from gaming. It's a right.
In 1988, Congress formally recognized but limited the right of Indians to
conduct gaming operations with the passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act
(IGRA). The act mandates that tribes and states negotiate and sign compact
agreements concerning games to be played and the specifics of regulation. It
also ensures that tribal governments are the sole owners and primary
beneficiaries of gaming and recognizes tribal gaming as a way of promoting
economic development. Finally, IGRA mandates that states and tribes enter into
the negotiations in "good faith."
From the beginning, tribes were wary of the compact mandate, fearing that it
allowed states to bully them with capricious requests. Some states, for
example, ask tribes to drop outstanding land claims before they will negotiate.
Though the statute clearly says that states cannot assess more money than it
costs to set up and monitor regulatory infrastructure, they have managed to get
big pieces of the pie. Connecticut, for example, secured 25 percent of the
earnings of the Pequot and Mohegan tribes, which adds about $294 million to its
annual budget. As first-generation compacts come up for renegotiation in other
parts of the country, states that have opted for vote-getting tax cuts covet
lucrative agreements like Connecticut's. Nevertheless, many of the nation's 2.4
million Indians have come to look upon IGRA as a heroic piece of legislation.
It guarantees that tribes can game and that states will negotiate with them.
Today, there are approximately 260 Indian casinos in 28 states. And for the
most part, gaming -- a $7.4 billion industry -- is saving Indian communities.
According to the Web site of the National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA) in
Washington, D.C., "Gaming has replaced the buffalo as the mechanism used by
American Indian people for survival." Jacob Coin, executive director of NIGA,
told the Phoenix, "Gaming enterprises create jobs, they supplement
dismal tribal budgets, and they enhance education and health care. These are
facts. It is clearly the only answer that works. In the absence of gaming there
have never been any viable options for economic development in Indian
communities." And the "good faith" mandate has had one unforeseen benefit.
"These gaming compacts," Coin says, "have prompted unprecedented dialogue
between states and tribes."
But from the beginning, Chief Sachem Matthew Thomas says, Rhode Island
politicians scoffed at the "good faith" mandate. "At first, we proposed a bingo
hall for our reservation," Thomas explains, "but in late 1992 [the year
Foxwoods opened], we announced we wanted to go full-scale and all hell broke
loose." At that time, then-Governor Bruce Sundlun felt that the Rhode Island
Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1978 -- the act that returned tribal land but
subjected the Narragansetts to certain state laws -- overrode IGRA and
prohibited the tribe from building a casino. In response, the tribe filed a
federal suit against the state, claiming that IGRA superseded the 1978
legislation and required the governor to negotiate a compact.
In March 1994, a federal appeals court affirmed the right of the Narragansett
Indians to build a casino on tribal land. Not willing to accept the verdict,
the state appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court in July 1994. The court
refused to hear the case, thus upholding the tribe's rights under IGRA. But
even before the Supreme Court refusal, Sundlun reversed himself. He realized he
was beat, and after that point, Chief Thomas says, "Sundlun behaved like a
gentleman and agreed to negotiate a compact."
In August 1994, the Narragansetts and Sundlun agreed to move the proposed
casino from their reservation to West Greenwich, which is more attractive
because it's right off I-95. But the move required that the proposal be
approved in a statewide referendum. That casino was rejected by voters in
November 1994. The tribe, however, did not concede defeat, confident that with
IGRA on their side and a commitment to keep the casino on their land, one day
they would be allowed to conduct gaming.
For two years, the Narragansetts and state politicians haggled over the
casino. Then, in October 1996, John Chafee, who disliked the idea of building a
casino without voter approval, clobbered the tribe with an audacious backdoor
maneuver. Using his clout in Congress and the support of Governor Almond and US
Senator Claiborne Pell, Chafee convinced his peers to pass an appropriations
bill that included a controversial rider. Using the 1978 settlement act as its
legal crutch, Chafee's legislation excludes the Narragansett Indians from the
protections of IGRA. It says, in essence, that the Narragansett lands will not
be considered Indian lands for the purpose of gaming. This obliterates the
precedent dating to 1831 -- and in the case of the Narragansetts, affirmed by
the Supreme Court in 1994 -- that state law does not apply on reservations.
Now, if the Narragansetts want to build a casino in Rhode Island, they must
about it like any commercial firm, meaning the matter must be approved by
voters. The Narragansetts became the only federally-recognized tribe in the
United States not to enjoy the rights mandated in IGRA and repeatedly upheld by
the Supreme Court. They were stunned.
"I don't think a lot of people understand what happened," Chief Thomas says.
"In the middle of the night, our rights were taken away. You can't kill me by
putting a gun to my head anymore, but you can kill me by taking away my right
to economic development. You have to understand," the chief implores, "that
before Chafee's action, we had done everything we were supposed to do under
federal law, and the courts had affirmed our rights. So when that rider went
through, after we had spent millions of dollars fighting to prove our rights,
well, it's just . . . you don't think it could happen today."
Guy Dufault, a tribal spokesman, has been involved with the casino matter
since 1992. He says that the revered Chafee blew it. "What Chafee did," Dufault
argues, "was to vote for IGRA in 1988 and take credit for being a
forward-thinking politician who supports Indian tribes. Then he turns around
and acts on the kind of narrow, parochial interest that IGRA was designed to
In 1997, the Supreme Court said that Chafee's rider was a legislative matter
and refused to rule on its constitutional integrity. US Representative Patrick
Kennedy opposed Chafee's gambit, but was powerless to prevent it. Last
February, Kennedy reintroduced his Narragansett Justice Act, which seeks to
restore the tribe's IGRA rights, but it didn't pass the House of
Representatives in 1998, and it's unlikely that it will in 2000. "It's tough
for Kennedy," Dufault explains. "He's a young member of the minority in
Congress trying to overturn a piece of legislation proposed by a Republican
Jacob Coin, the NIGA head, says that Chafee's move surprised many people in
Washington and that its reverberations were felt all over the country. "The
Chafee amendment did concern us a great deal," he admits. "Certainly it's an
anomaly in the way that states deal with tribes. Hopefully, it won't set a
After Chafee's rider, the tribe wanted to move forward and get a casino
proposal on the ballot, as they are now obliged to do. Because of Governor
Almond's strong opposition, however, nothing has panned out.
According to Dufault, Almond is the casino's biggest enemy. Because of a
personal aversion to gambling, the governor has vowed to veto the casino bill
should it pass the General Assembly this year. Lisa Pelosi, spokeswoman for the
governor, says, "The governor will use his bully pulpit to oppose this casino.
His first strategy is to try to prevent the General Assembly from passing the
bill. But if they do, he will veto it."
Almond's position is curious, to say the least, considering that Rhode Island
is a gaming state. In fact, gaming is Rhode Island's third largest source of
revenue. In any convenience store you can buy lottery or scratch tickets, and
you can bet on games or play video slots at Lincoln Park or Newport Jai Alai.
The state pocketed $133 million from the lottery in the last fiscal year. If
nothing else, there is the appearance of hypocrisy in the governor's position.
"With the exception of Bruce Sundlun," Dufault says, "the politicians in this
state have demagogued the issue. It's fashionable for politicians to be against
gaming. They talk about not wanting gambling in the state yet they love the
lottery revenue. It reeks."
Pelosi counters that the governor's position does not constitute hypocrisy.
"While the governor does not deny that the state needs lottery revenues, if we
could start over again, he would prefer to fund the state without them," she
Dufault recalls how the tribe decided on West Warwick in January 1999, just
when it was most dejected. "The chief said to me that he was tired of fighting
the politicians, that he wanted to find people to support us. That's why we're
in West Warwick. They opened their arms. We all decided to do a vote to make
sure the people were for this before we moved forward. On the hottest day of
the summer -- a day so hot that Almond closed the state offices -- more people
turned out to vote in West Warwick than had turned out for the last
presidential election. And we won, by a two-to-one margin. For the first time,
the chief felt that the people were behind him."
But the Narragansetts were still playing with a fixed deck. In 1998, before
the West Warwick referendum, the General Assembly passed a law that gave it the
authority to decide whether a casino proposal gets on the ballot. Previously, a
town council resolution was enough. The General Assembly assured the
Narragansetts that this was not to keep their proposal from voters, but to
prevent shoddy, half-baked proposals from slipping through and spoiling the
ballot. But the legislation means that the proposal may never get to Rhode
Island voters, something that even Chafee assumed to be a right of the tribe.
To get on the ballot in November, the casino proposal must clear the General
Assembly with a two-thirds majority to survive the governor's veto.
Even to some casino opponents, Almond's veto threat is unjust. Patrick
opposes gambling and would prefer to see other economic development initiatives
proposed for the Narragansetts. Nevertheless, his position, according to
spokesman Larry Berman, is that "the issue should be on the ballot and should
be voted on by the people of Rhode Island."
If the chair of the Senate Finance Committee, Michael Lenihan (D-East
Greenwich), can influence his colleagues, the proposal won't make it. "I am
opposed to the casino," he says. "I oppose it on fiscal grounds. It drains off
disposable income and doesn't add value like manufacturing, which creates jobs
and goods. Also, I oppose it because of the social problems and the rise in
crime casinos create. The increased tax revenue that comes with a casino goes
in large part to dealing with those problems. The state is responsible to all
of the people, not just the Narragansetts."
The tribe's argument is that no matter what one might think about casinos,
it's an issue for voters, not the General Assembly or the governor, to decide.
Dufault can't imagine the General Assembly standing in the way. "That would be
an unbelievable power grab," he says. "They can't deny the right of the people
of Rhode Island to vote on this issue. That would be lethal in an election
year. One thing people need to know is that the Narragansetts have been
knocking on the front door since 1992, and every time, the state changes the
State Representative Timothy Williamson (D-West Warwick), the bill's sponsor
in the General Assembly, makes a similar plea. "All I can say to people who are
on the fence about this is, even if you're against it, do you want to make the
decision, or do you want someone else making it for you? I am not in the
business of telling people how to spend their money."
The General Assembly, however, will not be swayed by this logic. Like
Representative Lenihan, Antonio J. Pires (D-Pawtucket), chairman of the House
Finance Committee, has pledged to be practical. "The only question from my
point of view," he explains, "is, does it make sense to taxpayers?"
David Kenik, who co-chairs an opposition group called
CasiNO! 2000, believes
the General Assembly will kill the bill. If it doesn't, he supports the
governor's right to veto it. The figures have become so twisted, Kenik says,
that the public is not equipped to do the math. "I think that the General
Assembly will realize that this issue is too complicated a matter to put to
voters. Voters don't do their research. It's too sophisticated for the general
public to figure out."
No matter how boggling the numbers may be, the Narragansetts have earned the
right to let state voters figure them out. And even though the odds are not in
their favor, on Tuesday afternoon, casino backers held a peppy press
conference. At Spring Hill Suites -- a West Warwick hotel located a few hundred
yards from the proposed casino site -- the tribe predicted the proposal's
success in the General Assembly and introduced the casino's new financial
backer, Boyd Gaming Corporation of Las Vegas, who helped the Choctaw Indians in
Mississippi turn the Silver Star Resort & Casino into a profitable gaming
enterprise. When asked if the partnership would help the proposal get past the
General Assembly, Williamson could only say that Boyd's impeccable reputation
won't hurt. What he meant was, if we're lucky.
Justin Wolff can be reached at jwolff[a]phx.com.
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