Longtime chief claims tribe members ‘forcibly took control’ of building

Longtime Narragansett Tribal Chief Sachem Matthew Thomas

CHARLESTOWN, R.I. (WPRI) — The quarrel over who controls the Narragansett Indian finances and administration building was discussed in a federal court telephone conference call, but there was no resolution to the three-day sit-in by a group of tribe members who took control of the offices Tuesday morning.

More than a dozen police officers from multiple communities and state police stood watch outside the building on Thursday as about a dozen members continued their occupation. A window near the front door was broken when a disgruntled tribe member tried to force his way in, according to an eyewitness.

Police said there were a few scuffles, but no injuries or arrests were reported.

Matthew Thomas, the tribe’s Chief Sachem for nearly 20 years, filed a motion for a temporary restraining order Wednesday. He added a memorandum to the case file Thursday, claiming the Narragansett Indian Tribe Tribal Council “forcibly took control” of the building, changed the locks and “have caused Tribal bank accounts to be frozen.”

The new tribal council had also filed a motion for a temporary restraining order in an effort to get help from federal authorities to gain control of the tribe.

U.S. District Judge John J. McConnell Jr. denied both motions after a telephone conference call this morning.

In his order, Judge McConnell wrote “the court lacks jurisdiction.”  The order stated “the parties shall show cause for why this matter should not be dismissed” on or before January 13.

Chastity Machado, elected to the tribal council in July, is one of about the tribe members who’ve slept in the offices since Tuesday’s “transition of power.”

Police outside the Narragansett Indian administration building on Thursday, Dec. 22, 2016. (Walt Buteau/WPRI-TV)
Police outside the Narragansett Indian administration building on Thursday, Dec. 22, 2016. (Walt Buteau/WPRI-TV)

“We are taking care of payroll, and doing some internal processing to determine where we should go next,” Machado said. “We want to conduct a forensic audit to determine where our finances are.”

Medicine Man John Brown is among the opponents who insist that the July election was flawed. Brown said the council members who are in the building now were not elected legitimately.

“We will wait this out for as long as it takes,” Brown said. “We must take a measured approach in extracting them [from the building]. I don’t know how long it will take.”

The July election was the second time a group led by Brown and Thomas disputed voting results. Last December, members of the council who were elected in June 2014 were informed in emails that their “appointment to Tribal Council has concluded due to the invalidation of the 2014 Tribal Election.”

Tribal election committee chairperson Bella Noka and Machado are part of the group that stand by the new council’s vote in October to impeach Thomas over a number of issues, including his residency in Florida.

Noka said the group had a key and did not break in to the building. Noka said the locks have now been changed and the new council is in the process of securing banking information.

Chief Sachem Thomas got a Florida driver's license in March.
Chief Sachem Thomas got a Florida driver’s license in March.

About a month after the impeachment, Thomas called for the “imposter tribal council to end their political charade.”

He called the residency questions “irrelevant,” adding that U.S. boundaries have nothing to do with his sovereign nation.

His opponents have cited tribal election rules that state the chief must live in Rhode Island or within a 50-mile radius.

Target 12 revealed that documents from the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles showed Thomas has been a Florida driver since March 10, 2015.

Send tips to Target 12 Investigator Walt Buteau at wbuteau@wpri.com and follow him on Twitter @wbuteau