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February 25, 2008
PROVIDENCE - The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a land dispute between the Narragansett Indian Tribe and Rhode Island. The justices will decide whether land purchased by the tribe in 1991 should be governed by Rhode Island law or tribal and federal law.
The Narragansett have tried for years to build an Indian casino in southern Rhode Island. They would like to derive financial success similar to Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun in neighboring Connecticut.
In 1978 the tribe received 1,800 acres of land in a legal settlement that subjected the parcel to state and local control and a state ban on casinos. In 1996 the U.S. Congress banned the Narragansetts from applying under federal law to build a casino on that land without state approval.
However, the case before the Supreme Court is based on 31 acres in Charlestown that the tribe purchased in 1991 to build housing for their elderly. This land is not part of the 1978 settlement. The tribe would like the U.S. Department of Interior to take this land into federal trust, which effectively removes it from state and local control.
The state argues that the federal government cannot take land into trust for tribes recognized after the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act unless they meet certain ancestry requirements or Congress specifically authorizes it. Rhode Island lawyers argue that since the Narragansetts were not federally recognized until 1983, they cannot place their land into trust unless Congress allows it.
The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston rejected the state's case last July. The Supreme Court will now review the case sometime later this fall. Their decision could impact on tribes throughout the country by changing the status of tribal land, especially newly acquired lands.
Rhode Island voters rejected a proposed amendment to the state constitution in 2006 that would have allowed the Narragansett tribe and Las Vegas-based Harrah's Entertainment to operate a casino in West Warwick.
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