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Appeals court sides with tribe in trust land dispute

A federal appeals court on Wednesday handed the Narragansett Tribe a much-needed victory in one of its many battles with the state of Rhode Island.

The tribe and the state have been at odds over gaming, jurisdiction, taxation and a host of other issues. Many times, the tribe has been at the losing end of the stick.

But in a unanimous decision, the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals backed the tribe's bid to have 31 acres placed in trust for a housing project. A three-judge panel rejected the state's attempt to block the acquisition, which has been tied up in litigation since 1998.

The decision, however, left open a key question that is likely to lead to even more debate. The court cautioned that it did not determine whether the state's criminal and civil laws will apply to the parcel.

That issue is at the heart of yet another tribal-state dispute before the 1st Circuit. On July 14, 2002, state police troopers raided the Narragansett Reservation in order to shut down a smokeshop deemed to be in violation of state law.

A federal judge sanctioned the raid, saying the state was within its rights to enforce state criminal law on tribal lands. The 1st Circuit heard arguments in the case last September and a decision is pending.

The trust land and the smokeshop cases both raise similar questions about the extent of the tribe's rights as a federally-recognized entity. Like several others in New England, the Narragansetts fall under a land claims settlement act that grants the state certain authority over tribal lands.

Gov. Donald Carcieri, a Republican, and local officials argued that the settlement act bars the BIA from taking land into trust for the tribe. But the 1st Circuit rejected this line of thought, saying there is nothing in the law to suggest that.

The Rhode Island Indian Claims Settlement Act "does not preclude the [Interior] Secretary from acquiring additional lands in trust for the benefit of the Narragansetts," Judge Juan R. Torruella wrote for the majority.

The court also rejected the state's numerous challenges to the constitutionality of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. The state tried to strike down the provision of the law that allows the BIA to take land into trust, saying Congress didn't provide adequate standards.

The court likewise dismissed the state's argument that the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 does not apply to the Narragansetts because they weren't recognized at the time. Newly-recognized tribes "shall be entitled to the privileges and immunities available to other federally recognized historic tribes by virtue of their government-to-government relationship with the United States," the court said, quoting the BIA's regulations.

With the decision, the 1st Circuit joins the 2nd Circuit in rejecting state attempts to limit the rights of New England tribes In a trust land dispute involving the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation of Connecticut, state officials had unsuccessfully raised many of the same arguments presented in the Narragansett case.

Tribes across the nation have been closely watching the Narragansett case for fear that the IRA's land-into-trust provision could be found unconstitutional. The issue has been up in the air ever since the state of South Dakota raised it in a case involving the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, a dispute still in litigation.

The Native American Rights Fund and the National Congress of American Indians, through their joint Tribal Supreme Court project, filed an amicus brief on behalf of the Narragansetts. The Mississippi Band of Choctaws, who were in a similar situation to the Narragansetts in the late 1970s, also filed a brief.

The 31 acres at issue are located in the town of Charlestown. The land is adjacent to the existing Narragansett Reservation but is separated by a town road. Town officials fear the tribe will try to start a gaming establishment on the land but the 1st Circuit said the worries were not supported by the record.

Get the Decision:
Carcieri v. Norton (February 9, 2005)

Relevant Links:
Narragansett Tribe -
Tribal Supreme Court Project -

Relevant Laws:
Rhode Island Indian Claims Settlement Act (US Code)