Seaside communities in New England are providing 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 beach passes for anyone with a valid identification card from the Narragansett Indian tribe.
On Cape Cod in Massachusetts, the towns 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 people in 2020 as part of its efforts to mark the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Pilgrims aboard The Mayflower.
Brian Weeden, chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe on Cape Cod that traces its ancestry to the Native Americans that encountered the Pilgrims, commended the towns for taking the “symbolic steps” to recognize the importance of the ocean to their tribe’s heritage.
“In our creation stories, we say the first Wampanoag boy was actually made out of the foam of the sea and therefore we come from the land and the water,” he said. “We are sea-faring people and we need the ocean to survive. It’s been our sustenance for hundreds and thousands of years.”
Jesse Pugh, the town council president in Narragansett, hopes his proposal sparks broader discussions between town officials and the town’s namesake tribe.
“We’re not acting like we’re doing the biggest favor to the tribe,” he said. “This is just something that we thought was right and that we can do. Hopefully it adds momentum to some kind of relationship with the tribe.”
Narragansett’s new policy allows valid tribe members, regardless where they reside, to get a free seasonal pass. The passes otherwise cost $25 and are only available to town residents. The daily rate for non-resident beachgoers is $12 and are required for anyone over the age of 12.
Tribe members looking to park at the beach lots would still have to pay the separate parking fees. Pugh stressed no other additional rights or exceptions to beach rules are conferred. Open fires, for example, remain prohibited.
The policy is only in place for this season so far. During council meetings, some residents spoke up against granting the free passes to nonresidents and worried about the new policy’s impact on overcrowding at the beaches.
Pugh said Narragansett beaches are funded by revenues generated from beach fees, so they aren’t covered by local taxpayers in the traditional sense.
And less than a dozen tribe members have so far claimed the passes, which will be required starting May 28, according to the town’s parks and recreation department.
The tribe, which didn’t respond to emails seeking comment this week, has roughly 3,000 enrolled members, but a significant number are likely children under the age of 12 who would already be free to enter town beaches, Pugh said.
Weeden, of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, hopes Massachusetts and other states can take broader efforts to codify beach access rights for tribes, rather than piecemeal efforts by individual communities.
He says securing beach access is a small way to make sure tribes’ “aboriginal rights” to waterways are respected.
“It’s definitely appreciated after 400 years of colonization and gentrification,” Weeden said. “It’s a step in the right direction, given what they’ve done to our people. At the same time, we have a long way to go.”