Beach towns offer free beach passes to Native Americans

BOSTON (AP) — New England seaside communities are offering free beach access to Native Americans as the summer season kicks off this Memorial Day weekend.

Officials in Narragansett, Rhode Island, earlier this month approved free seasonal passes for anyone with a valid Narragansett Indian Tribe ID card.

On Cape Cod, Mass., the cities of Truro and Wellfleet are also extending a similar benefit to any Native American with proof of tribal affiliation when beach permits are required in late June.

The moves come after Eastham, another Cape Cod town, began offering free seasonal stickers to Indigenous peoples in 2020 as part of its efforts to mark the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Pilgrims aboard the Mayflower.

Brian Weeden, president of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe on Cape Cod, whose origins can be traced to Native Americans who encountered the Pilgrims, praised the towns for taking the “token steps” to recognize the importance of the ocean for heritage of their tribe.

“In our creation stories, we say the first Wampanoag boy was made from the foam of the sea and therefore we come from land and water,” he said. “We are sailors and we need the ocean to survive. It has been our sustenance for hundreds and thousands of years.

Narragansett City Council President Jesse Pugh hopes his proposal will spark wider discussions between city officials and the city’s namesake tribe.

“We don’t act like we’re doing the greatest service to the tribe,” he said. “It’s just something that we thought was right and that we can do. Hopefully it adds momentum to some sort of relationship with the tribe.

Narragansett’s new policy allows able-bodied members of the tribe, regardless of where they live, to get a free season pass. Passes otherwise cost $25 and are only available to residents of the city. The daily rate for non-residents is $12 and is mandatory for anyone over 12 years old.

Tribe members wishing to park on the beach lots will still need to pay the separate parking fee. Pugh pointed out that no other additional rights or exceptions to the beach rules are conferred. Open fires, for example, remain prohibited.

The policy is only in place for this season so far. At council meetings, some locals spoke out against giving free passes to non-residents and worried about the new policy’s impact on overcrowding on the beaches.

Pugh said Narragansett’s beaches are funded by revenue generated from beach fees, so they are not covered by local taxpayers in the traditional sense.

And less than a dozen tribesmen have so far claimed the passes, which will be needed starting May 28, according to the city’s parks and recreation department.

The tribe, which did not respond to emails seeking comment this week, has about 3,000 registered members, but a significant number are likely children under 12 who would already be free to enter the beaches of the city, Pugh said.

Weeden of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe hopes Massachusetts and other states can make broader efforts to codify beach access rights for tribes, rather than piecemeal efforts by communities individual.

He says securing access to the beach is one small way to ensure the tribes’ “aboriginal rights” to the waterways are respected.

“It’s definitely appreciated after 400 years of colonization and gentrification,” Weeden said. “It’s a step in the right direction, considering what they’ve done to our people. At the same time, we have a long way to go.

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