Gov. J. Joseph Garrahy has signed this state's Indian Land Act, settling the first of the Indian land claims that have stirred controversy and muddled property titles in seven states from Maine to Louisiana.
The act, which turns over 1,800 acres of undeveloped land to the Narragansett tribe, implements an agreement reached by the tribal council, the state, and federal Justice Department and Indian affairs officials. Negotiations began after the Indians filed suit in 1975 for their ancestral land.
Suzan Harjo, of the U,S. Interior Department, called the Rhode Island settlement "a model of resolution" of the other Indian claims, including the 12 million acres claimrd by the Penobscott and Passamaquoddy tribes in northern Maine.
The Rhode Island settlement "shows all parties in the other Eastern Indian land claims that it can be done," she said, though the terms of this agreement should not be considered as establishing "a standard for those to come."
The act establishes an Indian-dominated corporation to oversee the 1,800 acres in Charlestown in the southern part of the state. Half of the land is state-owned. The rest is owned by private individuals and realty firms and will be purchased with $3.5 million set aside for that by Congress when it approved the settlement last year.
The settelement provides that three-quarters of the land will remain forever undeveloped, a condition insisted upon by the Indians.What they will do with the rest remains uncertain, but it can be used only to benefit the entire tribe and not to enrich individual Narragansetts.
The Indians originally claimed 3,200 acres, but made it a point not to claim any property containing a home. However, uncertainties raised by the suit clouded property titles throughout town, making real estate sales all but impossible. The settlement clears that cloud by voiding any further land claims by the tribe.
The suit was filed under the 1790 Indian Non-Intercourse Act, which forbids states to seize or purchase Indian land without federal approval. Rhode Island brought the last of the and from the tribe for a small sum a in 1890 without federal authorization. Other Eastern Indian land claims are also based at least in part on the 1790 Act, which will recent years was assumed to apply only west of the Mississippi.
Although the Narragansetts' name was widely appropriated-for everything from a large Atlantic bay to a recently closed throughbred racetrack to a local-brewed beer-the Indians until they filed their claim four years ago.
Most of the 2,000 lived in poverty in the southern part of the state, and their lawsuit posed questions about whether they even constituted a tribe. Those who call themselves Narragansetts today are ancestors not only of the Indians but also of the whites and African slaves who intermarried with them.
However, they have held tribal councils for generations and have worshipped for more than a hindred years at the same church in Charlestown.
Harjo gave a status report on the remaining "active" land claims.
In Maine, a six-month stay of the suit by the Passamaquoddy and Penobscott tribes was granted last month by federal district court to allow negotiations, which ahe been underway for a year, to continue.
The Mashpee Wampanoags are appealing a federal court decision throwing out their claim for much of that town on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. There are no negotiations.
The Gay Head Wampanoags have been negotiating for two years over 250 acres on Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts.
The claims of the Western Pequot and the Schagticoke for 800 acres and 1,300 acres respectively in Connecticut are in the motions stage in federal court.
Claims of the Mohawk, Cayuga and Oneida for 10,500 acres, 62,000 acres and 246,000 acres respectively in upstate New York are in various stages of negotiations.
A Catawba claim for 144,000 acres in northern South Carolina is in the discussion stage, which Harjo characterized as preliminary to negotiations.
In Louisiana, federal court is considering a Chitimacha claim for 1,500 acres.