Late last year, former Narragansett Indian Tribe First Councilman Randy Noka stood in a clearing on 32 acres of land in the Charlestown woods. He said if you want to know what he thinks of the town and its solicitor for Indian affairs, visit this spot where 12 small homes remain abandoned. 

The property was supposed to be affordable housing for elderly members of the tribe. Today, you see overgrown grass and buildings with smashed in windows. For Noka, it’s heartbreaking.

“You can see the condition of them,” Noka said. “It's a deplorable condition. And just as bad, if not worse, is the reason why.”

The details of this case may sound familiar. The property was at the heart of a years-long jurisdictional battle between the tribe and the town and state that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Ultimately, a majority of justices ruled against the tribe’s effort to place the land in federal trust and beyond local and state laws, finding that the Narragansetts didn’t qualify because the tribe wasn’t federally recognized in 1934 when a U.S. law outlined trust rules. 

After the ruling, Charlestown still wouldn’t allow the housing project to be completed through its approval process, because the Narragansetts wouldn’t sign away sovereign immunity shielding them from legal action should they someday decide to build something else on the land. 

“So they let this happen,” Noka said of town officials. “It never did go into trust and maybe never will. But you could have allowed the project to go forward, let the tribe finish it, let the private landowner–don't even have to put the tribe there for the sake of an example–let the private landowner move forward. There's projects all over this place.”

The attorney at the center of the legal dispute on the town’s behalf was Joe Larisa. The Narragansett Indian Tribe has its headquarters and about 1,800 acres in Charlestown, more land than anywhere else in the state. And Larisa has been around for nearly two decades as the town’s solicitor for Indian affairs. 

Larisa defends his position, saying in an interview that the job is about “facing the reality that we're the only town with a sovereign nation within our borders.” 

He continued, “Because of that, the town needs to be aware of its legal rights on every matter involving the tribe.”Larisa got his start opposing the tribe at the state level, working against a potential Narragansett casino in the 1990s and early 2000s for two separate governors. 

In Charlestown, he’s worked on civil rights cases involving town police and tribal members, issues stemming from the state’s infamous raid on a tax-free Narragansett smoke shop, and a more recent land transfer from the state to the tribe that fell through because of disagreements over tribal rights related to the land. Larisa also represents a public library in Jamestown that wants to build on land the Narragansetts say is a sacred burial site. 

“He's solicitor for Indian affairs issues, or fight-the-Narragansett-Tribe issues,” Randy Noka said. “To put it in my own words: ‘Any Indian that isn't benefiting because he's Indian, because he's Narragansett–any rights the Narragansett don't get because here I am, the Great Indian Slayer Joe Larisa, then good for me, good for the town of Charlestown.’"

In the last year, some town leaders have raised questions about Larisa’s arrangement with Charlestown. Town Council President Deb Carney is one of two council members who voted against renewing his contract in 2021.

“What we’re doing is we're retaining an attorney specifically against a group of people, and I don't think that's right,” Carney said. “We don't do that, nor should we do that, with any other group.” 

Carney and the other councilor who voted no, Grace Klinger, questioned the expense of Larisa’s contract. Currently, Larisa gets a retainer of $2,000 dollars a month regardless of how much work he does, plus $130 dollars an hour for additional litigation work. Carney takes her criticism a step further. She says Larisa’s position, as it’s currently structured, is “a bit racist.”

“We’re discriminating against one group of people,” she said. “We've separated the Narragansetts and said, ‘We're going to keep somebody on retainer just for every issue involving them.’”

Town Councilor Bonnie Van Slyke disagrees with that. Van Slyke, joined by council members Cody Clarkin and Susan Cooper, approved Larisa’s contract. She says the town solicitor for Indian affairs position is necessary and does not target the Narragansetts.

“They are our neighbors. They're very special neighbors,” Van Slyke said. “It's a matter of respect to understand what the basis is that we're dealing with these various jurisdictional issues. We need consistent, up to date advice on what these issues are and how to act, how to deal with them.”

Central to the solicitor’s position is the question of Narragansett land sovereignty and the possibility that Congress may someday pass legislation that could effectively nullify the 2009 Supreme Court decision and allow the Narragansetts to place land in federal trust without restrictions. That’s why a big part of Joe Larisa’s job is monitoring developments in Washington, D.C. and maintaining lines of communication with the governor’s office should a change in status be on the table. 

“If the tribe gets land in federal trust, unrestricted, it'd be ‘Indian country,’” Larisa said. “And when you have ‘Indian country,’ the land is largely exempt from state laws, state civil laws, state criminal laws, and town ordinances. It means they can largely do what they want, just like a sovereign nation within our borders.”

Larisa added, “Square one is it opens the door a crack to a casino again. It could open the door to other activities that would be illegal under town law or state law.”

But members of the tribe say that’s fear-mongering.With the amount of legal gambling in the region already, Narragansett Indian Tribe Medicine Man John Brown says a casino isn’t even a viable business opportunity today. He also points out that the Narragansetts own property in multiple states, including several hundred acres in Westerly, where the tribe’s relationship with town officials has been much more positive. Consider also that, in Connecticut, the state’s two federally recognized tribes have land in federal trust, and the towns they’re located in don’t have solicitors for Indian affairs. 

“There's this unnecessary fear of what we're going to do and how we're going to do it,” Brown said. “When you look at our lands and you look at the lands around us, it's not us that's overbuilt on our property. It's not us that’s fouled our waters. It's not us that’s fouled the air. We are a natural people, and we maintain the things that we have in natural or close to natural existence.”

Joe Larisa’s contract as Charlestown solicitor for Indian affairs has no end date on it and will next come up for discussion when the town council chooses to revisit it. So far, it has not. 

Alex Nunes can be reached at anunes@thepublicsradio.org.