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Narragansett ruling affirms trust land, recognition and tribal sovereignty

BOSTON - In a ruling that is significant for all of Indian country, the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the Interior Department's authority to take land into trust for the Narragansett Indian Tribe under the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act.

The June 20 majority decision also affirms the Narragansetts' sovereignty over those acres, and asserts that the IRA does not limit federal recognition to tribes that were recognized in 1934.

The 4 - 2 decision said the Interior secretary has the right to take into trust a 31-acre parcel of land, which is outside of the Narragansetts' 1,800-acre settlement lands. While the settlement lands are subject to state jurisdiction under the Rhode Island Indian Claims Settlement Act, the state will have no authority over the 31 acres, which are under federal and tribal authority, or any other land the tribe may acquire and Interior may take into trust.

The state filed the lawsuit against Interior in 1998, challenging the secretary's decision to take the land into trust. The state argued that the secretary was not authorized to take land into trust for any tribe federally recognized after the IRA was passed; that the Narragansetts' settlement act, passed by Congress in 1978, restricted the secretary's authority to place land into trust for the tribe; and that the Constitution prohibits the secretary from exercising trust authority.

Judge Sandra Lynch recognized the case as an attempt by the state to maintain power over tribal lands.

''The case is in many ways a proxy for the State's larger concerns about its sovereignty vis-a-vis federal and tribal control over lands within the state,'' Lynch wrote.

The case was so important to Indian country - and its opponents - that it drew amicus curiae status from the National Congress of American Indians, dozens of individual tribes, more than a dozen state attorneys general and a national anti-Indian gaming group.

The tribe celebrated the decision as an affirmation of its rights under federal law, but council member John Brown said the tribe expects the battle to continue.

''We're very grateful to National Congress of American Indians and the Native American Rights Funds and all the tribes and groups that came out to support us. We expect the state to take an appeal to the Supreme Court, and we're prepared for that,'' Brown said.

John Dossett, NCAI's general counsel, said the organization was ''very excited'' about the court ruling.

''We think it was the right decision. Recovering Indian land is one of NCAI's most important priorities, so we always get very involved in it,'' Dossett said.

The case has been both fascinating and frustrating, Dossett said, ''because all it does is it keeps things the way everybody thought they were, which is that tribes recognized after 1934 are still eligible for all the benefits of IRA,'' Dossett said.

More than 100 tribes would have been affected by questions about whether they were under federal jurisdiction in 1934, ''so the decision is really very important not just for the ability to put land into trust, but for the fundamental ability to have an IRA constitution and have the benefits of the IRA, which are extremely important for tribes,'' Dossett said.

Narragansett attorney Doug Luckerman said the decision is ''extremely significant. It's very strong on the issues that were before the court and I think it will be a useful precedent for the future when arguing interpretation of statutory language.''

The decision, if it stands, brings to an end more than 15 years of litigation by the state and town of Charlestown over the 31 acres, which the tribe purchased in 1991 to build housing for its elders.

In her 80-page ruling, Lynch minutely reviewed and refuted every argument in what she called the state's ''series of cascading arguments.''

The secretary views the IRA as an act ''intended not only to remedy past wrongs, but also to set a template for the future that would encourage the strength and stability of tribal communities. Based on this view, it would make no sense to distinguish among tribes based on the happenstance of their federal recognition in 1934,'' Lynch wrote.

There is no language in the settlement act that gives the state jurisdiction outside the tribe's settlement lands, or limits the secretary's power over lands the tribe might acquire later, Lynch wrote.

''We are bound by the language of the Settlement Act. The judiciary may not usurp the role of Congress,'' Lynch wrote.

Gov. Donald Carcieri's office did not return calls seeking comment, but, according to a report in the Providence Journal, state officials promised to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

''For the first time in the constitutional history of Rhode Island, this decision will create Indian country in our state,'' Carcieri's spokesman, Jeff Neal, said in apparent disregard or unawareness of the Narragansetts' documented history of existence for thousands of years in what is now known as Rhode Island.

''If this decision stands, it could be devastating to Rhode Island sovereignty and to the ability of its citizens to control what happens inside the state's borders,'' Neal said.

Dossett said the state is overreacting, ''As if the world's going to end and state sovereignty is going to end because the tribe has 31 acres in trust for a housing development.''

People in Rhode Island are ''hostile to the tribe's existence,'' Dossett said, ''and it's terribly sad. But they'll find out over time that it's not a bad thing to have an Indian tribe in your neighborhood. It can be very good for the economy and culture. It's very positive.''