EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. – The Town Council of Narragansett narrowly voted Monday night to provide free beach passes to the town beach for members of the Narragansett Indian Tribe after a contentious meeting that laid bare divisions over coastal access and Indigenous rights.
“Every place you walk, you are on native land,” Cassius Spears Jr., a Narragansett Indian Tribe leader, told members of the town council at Monday night’s meeting. “Giving this one ability to walk onto the beach without a barrier of payment is the least you can do.”
Narragansett is the only town in Rhode Island that charges not just to park at the town-owned beach, but also to walk on. It’s currently $12 a person for daily walk-on admission during the three-month summer season for people older than 12. Residents and taxpayers of the town can get seasonal passes for $25 to walk on as often as they want all season. Seniors, veterans and military in town can get seasonal passes for free. Seasonal passes aren’t available to non-residents.
Under the proposal that passed Monday night, members of the Narragansett Indian Tribe will now be able to show their tribal ID to get the same seasonal walk-on pass that residents can get, but without a cost, even if they don’t live in the town. The vote was a scaled back version of the original idea, which would also have provided free beach parking to tribe members. Council President Jesse Pugh, a supporter, said free parking was removed from the final proposal so it could get enough votes to pass.
It did, but just barely: At the beginning of the night, three out of the five members of the town council had voiced uncertainty about passing it right then and there, citing the need for more study or the opposition of some residents. But by the end, after more than an hour of three-minute public comments by supporters and opponents that often provoked cheers or grumbles in the standing-room-only crowd, one councilor provided the decisive vote. Patrick Murray said he was convinced that the parks department’s leader could handle issuing the passes and tracking how many people use them.
“If she can handle it, I’m OK with it,” Murray said to sustained applause in the crowd.
The town has been working on the proposal since February. It’s been discussed at multiple meetings of an advisory committee on coastal access in town and gotten a decent amount of news coverage. Supporters called it a small but symbolic step in a town that bears the name – and occupies the historic land – of the state’s only federally recognized Indian tribe. The Narragansett tribe, which once used the shore for summer encampments, doesn’t have any land along the state’s coast, from Misquamicut to Sakonnet.
“You can use our name when it benefits you,” Lynsea Montanari said at Monday’s Town Council meeting. “You can use it as your own, for beers, for the names of surf shops, when you want to start a business – take it and take and take and take, but never truly acknowledge us. Never look us in the face.”
But opponents said the idea of free beach passes hadn’t been properly vetted for potential effects on crowding or revenue. They asked for more study at a different advisory committee on recreation. Pugh, the council president, said he’d given that committee a heads up that this was coming, but they declined to put it on the agenda at their May meeting. That recreation committee is generally less favorable to open access than the Coastal Access Improvement Committee, where the idea of free tribal passes first emerged.
The town has been the scene of a years-long push and pull between residents who want policies more favorable to them and those who want a more open approach to coastal access.
“I take no issue with the Narragansett Indian Tribe,” said Nancy Lucivero, a town resident. “However, our town beach is crowded as is.”
Michelle Kershaw, the town’s recreation director, also raised skepticism about the proposal, saying there wasn’t enough time to get the physical cards before the season opens in two weeks. (Pugh said he’d buy them himself if he had to.) The town raises more money for the beach every year than it spends on it and has a beach fund balance in the millions of dollars. But the town needed to think about the beach like a business, she said, and she also pushed back on the notion that tribe members didn’t have access now.
By the end, though – after Pugh chided Kershaw for overstepping her role – she said if the council passed the proposal, she’d make it work. And many residents, even those who aren’t members of the tribe, also spoke out in favor of the idea, so the opposition did not break down cleanly between residents versus nonresident.
“This idea did not drop from the sky a couple of days ago,” said resident Catherine Celeberto. “There’s no economic impact.”
There are about 3,000 members of the Narragansett Indian Tribe. Not all of them live in Rhode Island. Some are young children, and wouldn’t have to pay for the beach anyway. Supporters said the idea that 3,000 people would suddenly use the beach all at once, or every day, or even a enough to notice a difference with crowding at the beach or cash in the town’s budget, was farfetched.
“You’re never going to make atonement for what was done to my people and all native people,” said tribe member Randy Noka. “It doesn’t seem like this is that big of a deal. Why are you making it?”
Councilwomen Ewa Dzwierzynski and Susan Cicilline Buonanno voted against the idea. Dzwierzynski cited the opposition of residents she’d been elected to serve; Cicilline Buonanno said she supported the idea in theory, but said it was being rushed through and needed more vetting.
By the end, though, the measure passed by a 3 to 2 vote, with Murray, Pugh, and Councilwoman Deborah Kopech in support.
“It’s about the beach, but in many ways, it’s about a lot more than just the beach,” Pugh said. “It’s an opportunity to start a new and healthy relationship with the Indian tribe whose name the town bears.”