KINGSTON, RI – April 9, 2010 – Matthew Thomas, Chief Sachem of the Narragansett tribe will receive the University of Rhode Island’s Diversity Award for Lifetime Achievement. He will be honored and will speak at the University’s 12th annual Diversity Awards celebration to be held at the Memorial Union Ballroom, Tuesday, April 13, 2010 at 6:30 p.m.
The youngest Chief Sachem of the Narragansetts in modern times when elected in 1997, Thomas has attained national and regional prominence as a spokesman and advocate for the doctrine of tribal sovereignty as a civil rights issue. According to Representative Nick Gorham, (R-R.I.), “he has come to symbolize the Narragansett Indians and their plight as the original natives of Rhode Island because he makes his case so well.” He is being honored for his leadership and advocacy in utilizing tribal sovereignty as a basis for legal, political and economic equity in the relations between the tribe and the state of Rhode Island. Relying upon negotiation, education, and legal redress, he has consistently sought intervention from the federal government to balance inequities in the historic body of case law.
During the 19th century, adversarial relations between Rhode Island and the Narragansetts culminated in a policy of the state imposing assimilation on the tribe, and confiscating thousands of acres of reservation lands in violation of federal legislation. In the 1880’s, Rhode Island in its capacity as trustee for the Narragansetts, disbanded the tribe. When the U.S. Congress enacted the Indian Reorganization Act in 1934, tribes were permitted to purchase, govern, and utilize land under federal trusteeship, thereby reconstructing the legal basis for tribal sovereignty. Under subsequent Democratic and Republican administrations, Rhode Island has argued that it was not obligated to acknowledge the Narragansetts because the tribe was not federally recognized at the time the law was enacted. In addition, the state has held that enabling the tribe to place land in federal trust – land that might be used for a casino or a tax-free zone – could impose economic hardship upon the state. Fear of tribal sovereignty that could lead to a casino or a tax-free zone provides the backdrop to the two major public controversies under Chief Sachem Thomas – the promising campaign for a casino in West Warwick, and the highly publicized smoke shop incident on tribal lands in Charlestown.
In addition to Thomas, the University of Rhode Island will honor several students, faculty, staff, administrators, and friends who have advanced the campaign for diversity and multiculturalism. Awards will be presented for contributions to undergraduate student excellence in academics, service, leadership and service, and arts and culture; graduate student excellence in academics, leadership, and service; faculty excellence in leadership and service; and staff/administrative excellence in leadership and service.
Previous recipients of the Diversity Award for Lifetime Achievement are former University President Robert L. Carothers; Municipal Judge Frank Caprio of Providence; a Vice Provost of Urban Programs, John McCray, Jr.; Director of the Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies Bernard LaFayette, Jr.; Clarice Odhiambo, the founder of the Africa Center for Engineering Social Solutions; Dr. Josepha Campinha-Bacote, The President of the Trans-cultural C.A.R.E. Associates; Judge Alton W. Wiley, the first African-American appointed to the Rhode Island District Court in 1980; and Mr. Leo DiMiao, for his leadership in developing the business and service delivery models of Special Programs for Talent Development.