The Narragansett Indian Tribe says it may file a lawsuit in federal court to prevent the municipal Jamestown Philomenian Library from beginning an expansion project the tribe believes would disturb historic burial grounds.

“We have no choice,” John Brown, medicine man and historic preservation officer for the tribe, said. “If they don't do the right thing, then we have to have a judge determine the weight of it.”

Brown said Jamestown encompasses an area that was used as the site for indigenous burials, and the library will be disturbing sacred burial grounds that the tribe thinks should be in a recognized archaeological district. 

“They know what they got over there,” Brown said, referring to the library project. “They know what they’re doing.”

The $4 million building project calls for the renovation of the interior of the library and external additions in three sections. In total, the project would expand the library by 1,710 square feet.

The library is located across the street from the national Jamestown Archaeological District, according to Jeffrey Emidy, interim executive director of the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission. 

The property at 26 North Road is a little more than a quarter-mile from Jamestown’s Lawn School, where a Native American burial was previously uncovered. Brown said that site may be the largest confirmed indigenous burial in New England.

Library Executive Director Lisa Sheley said library officials have no reason to believe Native American burials are present on the library property “just from all of the past excavations and buildings that have happened here on the property.” 

The Board of Trustees of the Jamestown Philomenian Library voted late last week to decline a $350,000 grant preliminarily approved by the National Endowment for the Humanities following opposition from the tribe during a required government review process intended to determine the potential effect of a federal project on an historic site.

Brown said the tribe was not notified about the application for the grant until after the library received the initial approval. He accused library officials of dropping out of the so-called Section 106 federal review process “because it would have brought the full weight of the United States and its agencies against them.”

Sheley said library officials had “no intent to circumvent anything” and did not contact the tribe because they were operating under the “assumption that there would not be anything still in the ground of any significant consequence to the tribe.”

Library officials said they are declining the federal money now because the review process was slowing down the building project. 

“We don't have that time,” Sheley said. “With our donors and foundations that have given us funding, we have to move forward.”Library Board of Trustees Chair Eugene Mihaly said the library originally applied for the federal grant for the expansion project at the suggestion of U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, who is also a Jamestown resident. 

In a statement sent by his press secretary, Chip Unruh, Reed said hopefully the tribe and library “can work together on a path forward -- either for this project or a new proposal.”

Library officials plan to scale back some of the building project to make up for the funding gap left by abandoning the federal grant. Mihaly, who is a former board chair of The Public’s Radio, said if burial evidence is found after the project commences, work would immediately stop.

Jeffrey Emidy said the Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission told the National Endowment for the Humanities earlier this year it did not have concerns about the library building project, but that was prior to the tribe raising objections.

His office, he said, has since recommended “incorporating archaeological and tribal monitoring of the construction into the project scope.”

Excavation work was done at the library in the early 1990s before a previous expansion, and burials were not found. But that survey work did not include the area the library currently plans to build on. 

The library has hired The Public Archaeology Laboratory, a Pawtucket-based firm, to survey the planned expansion site. Brown said the tribe is opposed to any disruption of the library grounds. 

The Jamestown Philomenian Library was originally built in 1971 on land that had been a school. Sheley, the library’s executive director, said she is not aware of anyone previously unearthing burials at the site.

The library has retained attorney Joseph S. Larisa, Jr. to assist with its expansion and address the tribe’s objections. Larisa also represents the Town of Charlestown as solicitor for Indian affairs and has previously opposed the Narragansetts on issues involving that town as well as the State of Rhode Island.

Mihaly said the library has already received approval for the project from the Jamestown Town Council.

The library hopes to begin work before the end of the year, but the tribe says if they actually start digging, they may end up in court.

Alex Nunes can be reached at anunes@thepublicsradio.org