Brian Lightfoot Brown
Enrolled citizen of the Narragansett Tribe
As the United States of America is in the midst of cleaning up a mess that the now-former President instigated, everyone is trying to regain their balance over the terrible insurrection at the Capitol building on January 6th.
Often lost in the shuffle of change are the needs, concerns and interests of this nation's Indigenous people. Native Americans are hoping that this time is finally our time. Tribes are currently battling this pandemic at the same time as we try to reclaim and hold onto our homelands and sovereign rights.
The Narragansett Tribe of Rhode Island, like many other tribes, are hoping that the Biden administration and the 117th Congress will be our turn to see our sovereignty upheld and our land permitted to follow land-into-trust. Elders have been waiting since they were young adults and the younger generations look forward to having more of a level playing field in order to be more self-sufficient.
On January 20, 2021, we welcomed in a new administration. As the 116th Congress has come to and end and we now prepare to start anew with the 117th Congress. The incoming administration and Congress must be held to their promises and duties to Indian Country.
In 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down their Carcieri vs Salazar decision. The decision is based on the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act and the key phrase "now under federal jurisdiction."
Justice Clarence Thomas stated that "now" meant as of 1934 when the Indian Reorganization Act was enacted. This decision prohibits any tribe from placing their land into federal trust if they obtained federal status after 1934.
The Narragansett gained federal status in 1983, approximately a century after the Rhode Island General Assembly illegally "detribalized" them and sold off most of their land.
Under the Obama administration, the Mashpee Wampanoag, descendants of the very people who assisted the pilgrims in modern-day Plymouth, Massachusetts, placed 321 acres into federal trust and began construction on a resort and casino.
Just a few years later, under the Trump administration, the trust decision was being reversed. The 116th Congress passed HR 375, a Carcieri fix bill to allow all tribes to follow the land-into-trust process, regardless of when they gained federal recognition and HR 312, a bill to restore the Mashpee Wampanoag reservation to federal status, in the House.
That was back in May of 2019. But both bills died on a back shelf in the U.S. Senate.
So now that we have moved on to the 117th Congress, bills like HR 312 and HR 375 must be started over, from scratch. The difference this time is that we are now able to work with a Biden administration that gives hope to Indian Country that our lands will be reaffirmed and protected.
It’s shameful that the Carcieri v. Salazar decision (2009) has still not been corrected. In its current state, tribes like the Narragansett are under the State of Rhode Island’s control, with tribal lands bound by the state's laws and taxes, excluding Aboriginal hunting and fishing rights.
It’s shameful that the Trump administration had tried to remove Mashpee Wampanoag reservation land from the federal trust, preventing the tribe from creating more jobs and providing for the community.
Indian Country is watching closely and waiting to see, not if but when the 117th Congress will move to finally right these wrongs.
While the Mashpee Wampanoag Reservation reaffirmation would help the Mashpee directly, it would also set a precedent for other tribes, like the Narragansett from neighboring Rhode Island, to follow.
Even further still, a long-overdue clean Carcieri fix would correct land-into-trust for the Narragansett, Mashpee Wampanoag, and the many other tribal nations impacted by the Carcieri decision.
The time to act is now.
Please, President Biden, Vice President Harris, and the 117th Congress, don't let us down this time.
Brian Lightfoot Brown studied U.S. History at the University of Rhode Island and is an enrolled citizen of the Narragansett Tribe and a grand nephew of 1936 U.S. Olympian and 2-time Boston Marathon winner Ellison "Tarzan" Brown.