FROM THE ARCHIVE

R.I. escalates fight over tribal smoke shop

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TUESDAY, JULY 15, 2003


STATE RAID: Troopers pin a tribal member on the ground. Click for More.

WJAR VIDEO: State troopers raid tribal smoke shop in Rhode Island. Click for More.
About two dozen Rhode Island State Troopers forcibly entered the Narragansett Reservation on Monday, arresting seven tribal members, including chief sachem Matthew Thomas and council member Randy Noka, in an escalating feud over a tribally-owned tobacco shop.

Armed with guns, dogs and a state court warrant, the troopers pushed past tribal police and onto Narragansett property at around 1 p.m. They quickly made their way to the smoke shop despite protests from tribal members and tribal leaders who were on the scene, according to video of the incident that was broadcast on WJAR-TV all afternoon.

The confrontation quickly turned violent, with police troopers throwing tribal members, including women, to the ground. On the video, Thomas is shown trying to prevent a trooper from entering the facility. Some of the troopers were wearing bullet proof vests while others who were not in uniform.

Thomas was eventually arrested after telling a trooper not to touch him, according to video. He was charged with disorderly conduct and assaulting a police officer.

Also arrested was Noka and his wife, Bella Noka. Their 14-year-old son, Norman, was taken into custody although not charged. Noka's 16-year-old daughter, Chali, was also injured in the melee, according to news accounts.

"I'm disgusted in the way this was handled," Noka is seen on the videotape saying as he was hauled away by police. "This is over cigarettes."

Free on $1,000 bail, Thomas returned to the reservation for an evening press conference. He blamed the violence on Gov. Donald Carcieri (R), who opposes the smoke shop.

"I explained to him that if we're going to disagree on a smoke shop, we should do it in a courtroom," Thomas said at the conference, according to the Associated Press.

At a 5 p.m. news conference at the airport in Providence, Carcieri defended his actions and said the tribe was at fault for defying state and federal law not to open its facility. He too laid personal blame on Thomas.

"I instructed the colonel of the state police to avoid any and all hostilities," he said at the T.F. Green Airport, according to the AP. "Clearly, those hostilities were provoked by the chief."

A legal battle was long expected over the tobacco shop, which opened Saturday to brisk business. Cartons of cigarettes went for $22.99, compared to $54.55 elsewhere. Some customers were present during yesterday's raid.

Carcieri contends the tribe has to pay state taxes because it falls under state jurisdiction. The conclusion is based on the tribe's 1983 land claim settlement act, which subjects activities on tribal land to state civil and criminal laws.

The tribe disputes the assertion, and in other states where tribes are under state law, tribes are free to sell tax-free cigarettes. The distinction is based on a civil "regulatory" versus criminal "prohibitive" analysis of what is legal. The Supreme Court, in the historic Cabazon casino case, recognized this split in California, which has civil and criminal jurisdiction over Indian Country.

At the same time, the Supreme Court has held that sales of goods to non-Indians can be taxed. The decision has led to tribes and state entering into compacts in which revenue from taxes is shared between the two governments. No such agreement has been made in Rhode Island.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs was still looking into the situation yesterday, a spokesperson said. The agency recently supported a Maine tribe's decision to open a smoke shop. Like the Narragansetts, the Aroostook Band of Micmacs fell under a land claims settlement act that seeks to place it under state civil and criminal law.

Attorney general Patrick Lynch's office did not return a request for comment yesterday.

Relevant Laws:
Rhode Island Indian Claims Settlement Act (US Code)

Relevant Links:
Narragansett Tribe - http://www.narragansett-tribe.org
Rhode Island Governor - http://www.governor.state.ri.us
Rhode Island Attorney General - http://www.riag.state.ri.us

Related Stories:
Narragansett chief arrested in 'violent' raid (7/14)
R.I. governor promises to help Narragansett Tribe (06/04)
R.I. tribe upset over reservation checkpoint bill (05/30)
R.I. bill sets up reservation checkpoints (5/28)
R.I. tribe delays opening of tobacco shop (5/23)