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SHORE ACCESS

Town of Narragansett invites Narragansett Indian Tribe to discuss coastal access

The 12-member House study commission studying coastal access does not include someone representing the Narragansett Indian Tribe, which historically used the shore for summer encampments but now faces barriers to getting there

Narragansett Town Beach.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — The town of Narragansett is named after the Narragansett Indian Tribe, but like much of coastal Rhode Island, the town does not offer wide access to its waters for the state’s Indigenous people.

The town has launched an effort to change that: Its Coastal Access Improvement Committee invited members of the Narragansett Indian Tribe to a roundtable Wednesday night to talk about ways to improve water access for Indigenous people.

After centuries of injustice, there was much to discuss.

“The Narragansett Indian Tribe are the Indigenous people of this land,” Chief Sachem Anthony Dean Stanton said at the meeting, held via Zoom. “Currently we don’t have any access to the ocean anywhere within this state. Rhode Island is called the Ocean State. But think about it. Indigenous people don’t have any right to the ocean in any capacity. This is wrong.”

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In Rhode Island, coastal access is always a big topic, and it’s taken on even more prominence in recent years. But the discussion – in the media, too, of course – doesn’t regularly focus on aspects such as Indigenous rights, instead often highlighting the stories of white people arguing with other white people. The 12-member House study commission studying coastal access, for instance, does not include someone representing the Narragansett Indian Tribe, which historically used the shore for summer encampments but now faces barriers to getting there.

This plays out not least in the town of Narragansett. Its expansive town beach charges people a daily fee to walk on it. Parking at shore access sites is a contentious and often litigious subject. For members of the tribe, churches are not defined by four walls but by living on landscapes, including the water, said Cassius Spears Jr., a member of the tribe and the First Councilman on its Tribal Council.

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“It’s important for us, as a tribe, to re-establish those relationships, where they have been severed,” Spears said.

The town of Narragansett’s Coastal Access Improvement Committee is made up of town-appointed representatives and officials, but it has no direct policymaking powers. Instead it can make recommendations to the Town Council. Generally, it’s working toward opening more access, a priority for a new majority on the Town Council, which does make laws. The town’s Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Awareness Committee also participated in Wednesday’s roundtable, and it’s expected to be part of broader efforts and an ongoing discussion.

Spears, for his part, had a few suggestions for achievable goals, including improving parking near coastal access points and waiving fees for Narragansett Tribe members for parking at town beaches. He also said the town could affirm tribal sovereign rights, and ensure that areas held for conservation also open access to Indigenous people.

“Use by Indigenous people is conservation,” Spears said.

Michael Monroe, the Second Councilman on the Tribal Council who also lives in the town, said he got involved in the issue of water access in part because of the sudden lack of availability of buses from the cities to the shore. That affected members of his tribe and others.

“The water’s very spiritual to me,” Monroe said. “That’s my safe haven at times.”

Cynthia Zerquera-Martin, chair of the town’s Coastal Access Improvement Committee, called the conversation Wednesday night a starting point — “one that is overdue, and one that we’re embracing with great joy.”

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But that starting point already made inroads. When the meeting opened up to public comments, Catherine Celeberto, a town resident who often comments at town meetings, said she wanted the committee to move forward on free town beach parking and entrance passes for Narragansett Indian Tribe members.

“I’m in favor of this,” Celeberto said via Zoom. “I want to see this committee go forward with this.”


Brian Amaral can be reached at brian.amaral@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bamaral44.