PROVIDENCE, R.I. – The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday limited the federal government’s authority to hold land in trust for Indian tribes, a victory for Rhode Island and other states seeking to impose local laws and control overdevelopment on Indian lands.
The court’s ruling applies to tribes recognized by the federal government after the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act.
The U.S. government argued that the law allows it to take land into trust for tribes regardless of when they were recognized, but Justice Clarence Thomas said in his majority opinion that the law “unambiguously refers to those tribes that were under the federal jurisdiction” when it was enacted.
The ruling comes in a case involving the Rhode Island-based Narragansett Indian Tribe and a 31-acre tract that the tribe bought in rural Charlestown, about 40 miles south of Providence.
At issue was whether the land should be subject to state law, including a prohibition on casino gambling, or whether the parcel should be governed by tribal and federal law.
Jack Killoy, an attorney for the tribe, said he was disappointed that the ruling could cast a legal shadow over the land holdings for tribes like the Narragansetts that were federally recognized after 1934.
“The court has narrowly construed a statute intended to benefit all Native American tribes and reversed 75 years of federal Indian policy,” Killoy said. “It affects so many tribes throughout the country that Congress is going to need to address this.”