[RELATED COVERAGE: Listen here to Narragansett Indian Tribe members Randy and Bella Noka discuss the significance the shore holds for them.]

Councilors approved the fee waiver in a 3-to-2 vote after two hours of passionate public comment from members of the Narragansett Indian Tribe and their supporters, as well as property owners opposed to allowing free beach access to Rhode Island’s only federally recognized American Indian tribe. 

“This is our land. You are on native land,” Narragansett Indian Tribe First Councilman Cassius Spears, Jr. said at Monday night’s meeting. “Every day, every place you walk, you are on native land. Giving this one ability to walk onto the beach without a barrier of payment is the least you can do.”

Town Council President Jesse Pugh called the proposal “an opportunity to establish a new and healthy relationship with the Indian tribe, whose name the town bears.”

But a group of property owners urged town councilors to table their vote, citing concerns about potential costs and overcrowding, and requesting more study for the proposal. 

Speaker Nancy Lucivero questioned whether Pugh, who brought forward the proposal, was acting in the interest of town residents.

“This is not in the best interest for me,” Lucivero said. “And there's so many other people that feel the same. I take no issue with the Narragansett Indian Tribe. However, our town beach is crowded as is. We, as taxpayers, pay to enter the beach, and the beach is overwhelmed as it is.”

Joe Cardello asked councilors about beach crowding and the effect of allowing free walk-on access for the tribe, which has about 3,000 members.

“You guys don't know the answer,” Cardello said. “You need to answer those questions to give a blanket 3,000 [passes]. I don't care who it is. I don't care if it's the Indians, or anybody else. But I will tell you this: If you're going to give anybody a free pass, it should be the taxpayers of this town, because we pay the taxes.” 

Some supporters of the fee waiver questioned whether the pushback was motivated by prejudice and argued that giving free access to tribal members would have little impact on beach operations. They said it’s highly unlikely every member of the tribe would actually get the passes, let alone come on the same day, and many of the tribe’s members are children under 12 who could get on the beach for free anyway.

The town of Narragansett already provides no-cost season passes to residents who are 62 and older, disabled veterans, and active duty members of the military. 

Tribal member Chico Champlin questioned why some town councilors wanted to continue studying a proposal that had already been considered and recommended by the town’s Coastal Access Improvement Committee.  

“Why do we have to keep on doing studies with my tribe?” Champlin said. “Nobody else gets studies but this tribe. Nobody. Why, because we're Indians? You try to abolish us, just wipe us out. We're still here, ain’t we? Seriously, think about it. Grow up, please.”

Council President Jesse Pugh and council members Deborah Kopech and Patrick Murray were the three votes in favor of the fee waiver. Councilors Susan Cicilline Buonanno and Ewa Dzwierzynski voted no.

The new fee waiver does not include free parking, a change that had also been suggested by the town’s Coastal Access Improvement Committee. 

Alex Nunes can be reached at anunes@thepublicsradio.org