Narragansett Town Council Gives Tribe Members Free Access to Popular Beach
May 17, 2022
NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — Members of the Narragansett Indian Tribe will be able to access the town beach this summer at no cost.
The Town Council on Monday night voted, 3-2, to update the beach fee schedule to include free seasonal passes for tribal members who present their tribal identification cards. Narragansett Town Beach already runs a similar free season pass program for seniors and veterans. All of the tribe’s estimated 3,000 members will be eligible to apply for season passes, as long as they do not fall under one of the other free categories.
“It’s about establishing a new and healthy relationship with the Indian tribe whose name the town bears,” Town Council President Jesse Pugh said.
Supporters of the action said it was a small but important gesture.
“Every day, every place you walk, you’re on native land,” Cassisus Spears said. “Giving us one ability to walk on the beach without barrier of payment is the least you can do.”
The last-minute change — beach season in Rhode Island starts Memorial Day weekend — was recommended by the town’s Coastal Access Improvement Committee. The same committee had also recommended including free parking along with the passes, a measure ultimately dropped from last night’s motion.
While Rhode Island beachgoers primarily access the shore for recreation, for members of the Narragansett Indian Tribe, the beach is a holy place. Tribe members frequently complain of the indignity of having to pay to walk on the beach, which their ancestors before White settlers arrived accessed freely, and having beachgoers or waterfront property owners gawping at their religious ceremonies.
“It’s not about recreation for us, or sunbathing. That is our church, that is our mosque, our temple or whatever you wish to call it,” tribe member Bella Noka said. “That is where we go to Grandfather Ocean and sing.”
The Narragansett Indian Tribe are the descendants of the original aboriginal populations that existed in Rhode Island prior to the founding of the state. Archeological evidence indicates the Narragansetts settled in the region more than 30,000 years ago, in an area along Narragansett Bay that stretches from present-day Warwick to South Kingstown.
In 1975 the Narragansett Indian Tribe filed a lawsuit seeking 3,200 acres of land in Charlestown, which it claimed passed out of tribal ownership in 1880 in violation of the Trade and Intercourse Act of 1790.
After lengthy negotiations, which included private property owners, the state, and the town of Charlestown, a tribe-controlled corporation received 900 acres of land from the state in an out-of-court settlement, and bought another 900 acres in private ownership with $3.5 million in federal funds.
Monday’s meeting had more than 2 hours of public comment, with a vocal bloc of property owners on hand to oppose the resolution, alleging the passes were going to non-taxpayers and would strain the capacity of the beach beyond its limits.
“We welcome any guest to the beach, but they should pay as we do,” local resident Nancy Lucivero said. “If there’s going to be up to 3,000 more people on the beach, including children, where is the space going to be because it’s busy as it is right now?”
The resolution also received pushback from Parks and Recreation Department director Michelle Kershaw. The beach, as well as the water, wastewater, and some other recreational areas, are classified as business-type activities and funded by an enterprise fund. The catch is no tax revenue is allowed to go into the enterprise fund; it is replenished with the revenue generated from their operations.
“Narragansett Town beach is a business,” Kershaw said. “The beach sustains itself and no taxpayer dollars go to the beach. All of the revenue generated at Narragansett Town Beach goes to making the town beach what it is every day.”
Council members Ewa Dzwierznyski and Susan Buonanno voted against providing the free passes, saying it was against the best interest of the town and to study the issue more.
The swing vote, Patrick Murray, voted in favor for the resolution after securing assurances that the town would keep tabs on usage. “I don’t mind [giving them] the access, we just need to get a headcount, and have accountability and track the activity,” he said.