Leadership dispute roils tribe

For nearly two decades, Matthew Thomas has served as chief sachem for the roughly 2,400-member Narragansett Indian Tribe based in Charlestown. How much longer he’ll continue in that leadership post could now be up to a court to decide.

The legal dispute hinges on whether Thomas was properly impeached during an election held on Oct. 1. Thomas rejected the vote, calling the election “illegal,” while his opposition maintains it followed tribal rules and Thomas must step down.

The election followed reports last year revealing Thomas registered to vote in Florida. Tribal members responded by calling for leadership change, saying he no longer lived within the required tribal boundaries.

“He’s been fired, he’s been impeached, he has to go,” said Misty D. Delgado, lawyer for the Tribal Council opposing Thomas.

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Thomas said there’s precedent restricting “dissident members” from electing their own tribal councils and convening an assembly.

“These dissident members have attempted to perpetrate a fraud,” Thomas said in a statement. He did not immediately return calls seeking additional comment.

The dispute has reached the U.S. District Court of Rhode Island.

Unresolved questions over who is in charge could impact federal funding the tribe receives.

The tribe this year received nearly $550,000 from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for affordable housing. Likewise, the U.S. Department of Interior through the Bureau of Indian Affairs earmarked $1.02 million for the tribe according to its fiscal 2017 budget.

“In most instances, if a tribal leader is removed, the grant should not be impacted if the leader is replaced according to the laws established by the tribe,” said Rhonda M. Siciliano, spokeswoman for HUD New England. “If the established process is not followed, if there is a challenge to the process, or if the government breaks into fractions, and there is no clear [or] legitimate government, the grant could be jeopardized.”

A BIA representative could not be reached for comment about how that funding might be impacted by the leadership dispute.

Delgado acknowledges, however, that beyond the residency challenge is a broader concern about Thomas’ leadership.

“A certain group of people have been holding the purse strings for a long time,” she said. “There are some serious concerns about what money is coming in and what’s going out.” •