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State officials celebrate Supreme Court ruling

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Anti-Indian sovereignty state officials are reveling over a U.S. Supreme Court ruling they say is a historic triumph for states’ rights and power over Indian tribes that were federally acknowledged in the last 75 years.

The high court ruled Feb. 24 that the Interior Department cannot take land into trust for tribes that were not already recognized in 1934 when the Indian Reorganization Act took effect.

Tribal leaders said the ruling is the latest attempt at judicial termination.

The case was Carcieri v. Salazar, in which Rhode Island Gov. Donald Carcieri challenged the interior’s authority to take land into trust for the Narragansett Indian Tribe. In 1998, the interior agreed to take 31 acres into trust for the tribe, but the town and state fought the decision through the federal district court and the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals, where they lost their challenge twice.

The Supreme Court overturned the appeal court decisions.

“This is a victory for the state of Rhode Island and the Town of Charlestown,” Carcieri said. “The implication of this decision is that all laws and statutes of the State of Rhode Island will be applied equally to the Narragansett Indian Tribe as they do to all citizens of Rhode Island, including taxation, gambling, zoning and all other civil and criminal laws.”

Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch implied that the federal government’s ability to take land into trust for tribes is treasonous.

“It always struck me as fundamentally wrong, and maybe even un-American, that with the stroke of a pen, the federal government believed it could unilaterally strip a state of its sovereign jurisdiction by taking land into trust – even where there were no federally recognized Indian tribes,” Lynch said.

Carcieri praised attorney Theodore Olson, who argued the state’s case before the high court in early November. Olson is best known for arguing the U.S. Supreme Court case that secured the presidency for George W. Bush in 2000.

“With this issue finally put to rest, I look forward to building a constructive relationship with the Narragansett Indian Tribe,” Carcieri said.

That’s not likely to happen any time soon, according to Chief Sachem Matthew Thomas.

“I don’t know why Carcieri and his gang feel this issue is dead. We intend on pursuing justice until we receive it. The state illegally de-tribalized us in 1880, then fought to say we were not under federal jurisdiction. Which obviously we couldn’t be after they did such an illegal act – until we cleared it up in 1978, (when the tribe was acknowledged).”

Thomas refuted Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ statement that Rhode Island had “convinced” the Narragansett to sell their land to the state.

“That is just not true. It would be like Justice Thomas being forced to pick cotton for free and when he complains he is told, ‘Well, your people agreed to be slaves,’” Thomas said.

He referred to the tribe’s long history as the indigenous people of the area long before the United States was born, and to the colonists who depended on the Narragansetts “for their very existence.”

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“To say they [indigenous peoples] did not exist as a tribe because they were not under ‘federal jurisdiction’ is insane. So in the end we will take our issue where we need to in order to receive justice, which may mean addressing the United Nations,” Thomas said.

“We were a nation long before what is now known as Rhode Island and the illegal actions the state has taken against us since we gave them Providence must be shed in the light of day.”

Carcieri’s inference that the state will try to collect taxes on the tribe’s lands will be fought, said Narragansett attorney John Killoy.

When the tribe filed its application with the BIA to take the 31 acres of fee land into trust, the taxes needed to be current, Killoy said. But since the 10-year litigation has been ongoing, taxes have accrued on the property and are likely substantial at this point.

“That’s certainly an issue that’s going to be on the table for debate. There are equitable reasons why the tribe shouldn’t be responsible for those taxes. Certainly they acted in good faith through the last 10 years, which is the most viable reason, and the intended purpose for the land is for a non-income producing project and, therefore, should be tax exempt.”

Neighbors react

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who was one of 22 state interveners in the case, held a press conference to announce “this huge, historic victory,” which he said “effectively prohibits the Mohegan and Mashantucket tribes from annexing land outside their settlement areas.”

Blumenthal said he was pleased that the high court agreed with his argument, “ending more than a decade of rancorous wrangling over tribal attempts to take land into trust. No more land can be taken off the tax rolls or put outside state and local land use, environmental and health laws or zoning rules. Towns bordering the reservations no longer face the fear of massive tax revenue losses caused by tribes taking land into trust.”

The Mohegans have never tried to annex land, Mohegan Chief of Staff Chuck Bunnell pointed out.

“They have a land settlement act which was ratified as federal law allowing them up to 700 acres in Montville. This was based on their land being stolen and sold illegally by the state of Connecticut and non-Native overseers. They also have an excellent working relationship with the town and surrounding community.”

As for the “massive tax revenue losses,” the two Connecticut tribes contribute 25 percent off the top of their slot revenues to the state – around $430 million a year.

Penobscot Indian Nation Chief Kirk Francis said the ruling leaves tribes like his in doubt about the status of their lands. Around 100,000 acres of Penobscot’s 125,000-acre settlement lands are in trust.

“The State of Rhode Island should be ashamed of itself for the lengths it went to in order to defeat this little tribe that’s just trying to survive and provide some quality of life for its people. This type of ruling attacks the core of what we are, and that is sovereign governments that should have the opportunities to do for our citizens what every other government does.”

Francis said he is promoting the idea of an emergency meeting of tribal leaders and organizations in a call to action to fight the latest act of judicial termination. Indian legal experts said they would seek a remedy by asking Congress to amend the 1934 IRA.

Bia spokswoman Nedra Darling said the ruling is under review by the Interior Department.