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SHORE ACCESS

Town of Narragansett considering free beach passes for Narragansett Indian Tribe members

The first councilman of the tribe calls it a small, symbolic step in the right direction, but Rhode Island needs to think about sovereignty for Indigenous people. “Just because they remove the fees doesn’t mean we have control,” he said.

Narragansett Town Beach.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

NARRAGANSETT, R.I. – Officials in the town of Narragansett are developing a plan to provide free beach and parking passes to members of the Narragansett Indian Tribe.

Details on the proposal are still sparse, but under the plan that’s emerging from a town advisory committee, members of the tribe would be able to get the same passes that residents get to access the Narragansett Town Beach. The Narragansett Town Beach is the only public beach in the state that charges people to walk on, at $12 a person. It also charges for parking. The town offers its own residents and taxpayers seasonal beach passes, for $25 a season to walk on, and $50 a season for parking.

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If the plan becomes law, the town would also offer members of the tribe the same parking and access passes that town residents get, at no cost.

The five-member Town Council would still have to approve the plan, but the current majority has generally been in favor of more coastal access – including by creating the advisory Coastal Access Improvement Committee in the first place.

Town leaders said it was the very beginning of broader efforts to work together with the tribe whose name it bears.

“We’ve got to start somewhere, and to work with as much respect and reverence as possible to achieve our goals,” said Cynthia Zerquera-Martin, the chair of the committee, at a meeting Wednesday night.

The idea came up at a meeting last month, when Cassius Spears Jr., first councilman of the tribe, mentioned it as one of several areas where the town and the tribe could work together.

Spears said in an interview Thursday that it’s a step – a small step, and a symbolic one, but at least a step — in the right direction.

“I do hope it does pass,” Spears said, “and I hope it’s a starting point for further conversation.”

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More fundamentally, though, Rhode Island needs to think about sovereignty for Indigenous people, Spears said.

“We’re just like the state of Rhode Island,” Spears said. “Rhode Island is the Ocean State – we’re the Ocean Tribe. Yet we don’t have any access, any access that we have sovereignty or jurisdiction over without some other person or entity or government controlling it. We have none of that. Just because they remove the fees doesn’t mean we have control.”

Members of the Narragansett Indian Tribe and others gather, Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021, in a wooded area, in South Kingstown, R.I., at what is believed to be the site of the Great Swamp Massacre, The Public's Radio reported. The land where the Rhode Island Narragansett tribe survived near-annihilation in a battle with English colonists on Dec. 19, 1675, has been transferred to the tribe. The transfer of the land from the Rhode Island Historical Society was finalized Oct. 22, 2021.Alex Nunes/Associated Press

At the Coastal Access Improvement Committee meeting Wednesday night, held in a board room at Town Hall, members of the committee said the idea was way overdue, and just the start of broader efforts. The coastal access committee would work together with a different town committee on diversity and inclusion, as well as members of the tribe, to develop the exact details of the proposal in the coming weeks and months.

The Narragansett Indian Tribe is the only federally recognized tribe in the state. Proponents say the tribe itself would help identify who’s a member of the tribe to determine who should get a free beach and parking pass.

But if the measure passes, it will have to get past some skepticism first. When public comment opened at the meeting Wednesday night, a town resident named Susan Sullivan asked whether things like camping, fishing and ceremonies would be allowed, and questioned how many people would be eligible for a free pass – about 3,000, according to the town.

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“That’s a lot of people to add on the beach,” Sullivan said.

Another person, Leo Sullivan, asked whether this would “open the door” for anybody in town ask for a “variance” like this. The committee, Zerquera-Martin said, was focusing on the Narragansett Indian Tribe, not economic issues.

The town has been subject to a years-long political push and pull over access to the beach, and how much priority the town’s own residents should get over people who live elsewhere. The beach not only funds itself but makes more money than it costs to operate year over year.

Spears, the tribe’s first councilman, said he was somewhat surprised at first that the idea came up against such immediate skepticism, because it seems like such an easy, and frankly small, step.

“It’s more of a symbolic gesture, because the amount of money is probably miniscule,” Spears said.

Spears also said he didn’t think 3,000 people would actually come out to the beach if this is opened up. There’s a diversity of opinion and thought, of course, and some people will take advantage of it – some already do, as there are Narragansett Indian Tribe members who live in the town of Narragansett. But Spears, who lives in Hopkinton, rarely ever goes to that beach. If this became law, he might go just to take in the symbolic significance of shore access in a town that took its name from his tribe. He doesn’t use the beach in the same commercially-focused way as many others do anyway.

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“We’re not going to go there to do ceremony while everyone else is playing volleyball,” Spears said.

And as to the question of whether other groups should get things like free beach passes, Spears said this tension often comes up in the discussions over Indigenous rights – what about someone else? But the history of Indigenous rights is unique.

“The United States could not cannot exist without the relations, the history, the land that was ceded from these tribes,” Spears said. “So it’s acknowledging that we never relinquished our rights to these lands. The land may have been sold and taken legally and illegally, under the systems of government that were imposed on us. But our inherent rights still exist. It’s not about economic status.”

The discussion over coastal access in Rhode Island is always a big topic, and it’s even bigger right now, with a 12-member statewide study commission looking into ways to improve things for people in the state.

But the commission did not include a representative of the tribe, whose perspective can often get overlooked on the question of shore access in Rhode Island. Bella Noka, a tribe member, went to one of the meetings at Chariho Middle School to speak out on these issues, including the cost of Narragansett Town Beach, named for her tribe.

But it was just one of many issues. In an interview Thursday, Noka said beach and parking passes, while a step in the right direction, wouldn’t right the wrongs of the past and return everything that belongs to the Indigenous people of Rhode Island. She also pushed back the idea that the passes would be “free.”

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“You cannot give something to somebody when it belongs to them,” Noka said. “That is the return of what they have taken from us.”


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