WARWICK, RI — “Pocahontas and Tonto have had their day. It’s over.”
That’s the quote attributed to Warwick Sewer Authority member Carlo Pisaturo in a recent Warwick Beacon report about the work to run sewers to the Bayside neighborhood, reflecting Pisaturo’s impatience with the long delays in the project, amounting to almost 20 years.
But there are several things wrong with that statement, beyond the blatant cultural insensitivity (we’ll get to that in a moment).
The most obvious problem is, it’s simply not Pisaturo’s place to make such a declaration.
Signed by the city, the state, and the federal Environmental Protection Agency — but notably not the Narragansett Tribe — the agreement requires those entities to use directional drilling in order to avoid disturbing known Native American burial grounds in the area.
The Beacon also quoted Narragansett Indian tribe historic preservation officer John Brown as confirming the presence of “sacred sites” in the area of the project, which are protected under federal law.
And so, Pisaturo demanding action from his position on the WSA — which is, in case he needs a reminder, governed by federal, state, and local laws that require it to conduct archaeological surveys — is little more than bluster from a political appointee who has let his supposed authority go to his head.
Even worse, Pisaturo’s ill-timed tantrum could deflect from the real issue: The potential fiscal impact to the city of breaking the agreement to complete the project, which Mayor Joseph Solomon himself wants to delay.
(Quoted by WJAR-10, Solomon said he was “shocked” by Pisaturo’s comments.)
Insult reflects whitewashed history
Pisaturo’s choice to use Pocahontas and Tonto, two figures who have been used to reinforce white Americans’ incorrect view of indigenous peoples, should not be considered some kind of witty insight.
By bringing up Pocahontas, Pisaturo is drawing a rhetorical line from himself to President Donald Trump, who has invoked her name to attack Massachusetts Senator and 2020 Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren. That association, with all of its clearly sexist and racial overtones, is a major strike against Pisaturo.
Likewise, his reference to Tonto — a fictional character who served as the Lone Ranger’s sidekick in what can fairly be described as a racist caricature that was not improved by Johnny Depp’s movie portrayal in 2013 — reflects an understanding of Native American culture and history seen through a racially white lens.
It’s worth remembering that Pisaturo, appointed to the WSA by Solomon, is not the first Warwick official to show such poor regard for the Narragansett.
The late Sen. John Chafee effectively stopped any chance of a casino for the local tribe in 1996 by adding an amendment to the federal budget that removed the tribe from the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.
Thirty-three years later, as other tribes in New England have developed casinos and benefited from the profits, the Narragansett are left with no such opportunity.
Remark a symptom of poor management
While obviously ignorant and arguably racist, Pisaturo’s comment should not distract from the underlying issue that faces Warwick, namely the suggestion that the city should break the agreement with the state and the EPA to presumably save the costs of running sewers to fewer than 1,000 homes.
At the moment, the estimated cost to each property owner is $24,000 to $27,000, with city officials suggesting the city could be on the hook for up to $27 million for installing the new lines.
The Beacon also reported that Solomon is “concerned by the added indebtedness the $23 million to $27 million project would add to the city’s overall balance sheet and what that might mean to the city bond rating,” which is somewhat ironic coming from the mayor who vastly underestimated the city’s surplus and dragged the city through an unnecessarily messy fight over school funding.
It’s also curious that Solomon would worry about the city’s bond rating, since projects like this one are funded by bonds taken out by the WSA and paid by sewer fees, not property taxes. Also, the FY18 audit — which Solomon released almost eight months after it was due — estimated that the city could borrow more than $200 million in bonds, based on its valuation.
Ultimately, the crux of the issue is whether the city should subsidize the sewer project and its related costs to dig in the area without disturbing sacred ground; all one need consider is the many beach closures from sewage-related bacteria this summer to understand that sewers are the only way to prevent such problems.
Whatever Pisaturo thinks the costs are for delaying the project, they would actually be higher if the WSA followed his suggestion to disregard the agreement, since the city would then be dragged through months of needless litigation over something that the WSA is equipped to do — namely, protect Native American burial sites.
And so, Pisaturo’s underlying point that the project should proceed is a legitimate one — but he seems to be ignoring his responsibility as a member of the WSA board to carry out the project legally and responsibly.
Conclusion: The Bayside sewer issue was messy enough without Carlo Pisaturo’s insensitive and ignorant remarks about Native Americans, which reflect poorly on him, the WSA, the city of Warwick, and Mayor Solomon. At the very least, he owes the Narragansett Tribe and the city an apology.
Update, Aug. 15, 2:45 p.m.: Per the Beacon’s report posted online today, Pisaturo dug himself a deeper hole with his comments at Tuesday night’s WSA meeting, claiming “you’re not digging up a cemetery,” and “you’ve already paved over Tonto.” Board members confirmed that any construction must preserve the historic tribal sites, according to the report.
Update, Aug. 15, 2:55 p.m. Solomon issued a statement via email that read: “I was shocked to learn of the comments made by Mr. Pisaturo. It is of the upmost [sic] importance that we respect the histories and traditions of different cultures. This morning, Mr. Pisaturo came to my office to express his deep regrets and offered his sincere apologies for his insensitive words. He has assured me that he will be reaching out to our Native American community to apologize and gain a better understanding of their philosophies and culture.”
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