Smoke-Shop Review Panel Report

Update According to a panel, led by Brown University President Ruth Simmons, the creation of a state commission on tribal-state relations is recommended, for the purpose of developing an agreement between the state and tribe on cigarette taxes.

Story in Pictures: History Of Smoke Shop

Rhode Island State Police Raid Narragansett Indian Tribe Smoke Shop

Posted: July 16, 2003
By Annette M. Hall


Story Update – Governor gets heat for Police Action.

In a shocking display of force the Rhode Island State Police raided the Narragansett Indian tribe’s recently opened tax-free smoke shop. The vicious police attack sent eight tribal members to the hospital, another seven, including the chief landed in jail. A lawsuit against the state has been filed, according to press reports.

The state police were reportedly asked to show their court papers as they entered the lot but requests were ignored. The troopers, continued to swarm across the parking lot and entered the tax-free shop.

Several tribal members were wrestled to the ground and handcuffed. Meanwhile police confiscated the cigarettes remaining on the shelves and confiscated about $900 in cash.

The tribe had postponed opening the shop nearly two months while it attempted to work with state finacial advisers, to find other ways of becoming economically self-sufficient.

Chief Sachem Matthew Thomas told reporters hours after his arrest. “I personally blame the governor of this state and I think he should be ashamed of the actions that took place down here.”

Who could blame the Chief for being angry? Here is a tribe who gave up 3,200 acres of land in the heart of Charlestown in 1978, in exchange for 1,800 acres of land. Now unless that land had gold on it just waiting to be mined, that doesn’t seem fair at all. However the trade allowed them to escape relocation.

It all began when the State of Rhode Island had denied them tribal status for over 100 years, and sold their reservation lands. The state was able to get away with this dastardly deed because the Narragansett had never signed a treaty with the United States of America. Thus creating a legal loophole, in which to avoid compliance with the Non-interference Act of 1790.

In 1975, the Narragansett had filed a land reclaimation suit. Their land was finally returned to them, and their sovereignty upon the land finally recognized in 1978.

The agreement was codified as the Rhode Island Indian Claims Settlement Act 25 U.S.C. § § 1701-1716. In 1983, the Narragansetts finally earned federal recognition.

For years the State of Rhode Island and the tribe have been at odds. Most recently over the gambling issue.

It’s no secret that Native American Indians have been hit hard by high unemployment rates and high poverty rates with many relying on the welfare rolls to sustain themselves.

Gaming is a way of life in the Native American culture, and now more than ever, it has become a source of revenue and livelihood for an oppressed people.

In 1988, Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which confirmed the sovereign rights of tribes to regulate gaming on tribal lands, unless the state specifically forbids that certain kind of gambling.

In 1992, the Narragansett planned to build a casino on their Charleston reservation, when they were met with a federal court challenge brought by the state. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the tribe in October 1994, which allowed that them to build a casino on their land, much to the frustration of the state.

Equal Protection Under The Law

The 14th Amendment to the Constitution states in part: No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Couldn’t this have been handled in a more appropriate manner? Is that not what our courts are for? Is the State of Rhode Island so money-hungry that they can’t allow the Narragansett to earn a living in an honest manner?

Businesses on other American Indian properties are allowed to sell cigarettes, cigars and other tobacco products free of state taxes. In fact, twenty states have used cigarettes to balance their 2002 budgets, Seneca Nation built a new tobacco distribution center on the Cattaraugus Reservation.

Those rules also apply in cyberspace. Tribal businesses like the Big Indian Smoke Shop are finding a nationwide market for their tax-free tobacco.

“All of the states hate us. But if they want to put us out of business, all they have to do is do away with the taxes,” said Ward of Seneca Nation.

Contact Governor Donald L. Carcieri

Sound Off!

Annette M. Hall