(CN) – A divided U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday limited the government’s ability to hold land in trust for Indian tribes that weren’t officially recognized when Congress passed a law aimed at preserving tribal land.
The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 allows the Secretary of the Interior to buy land and hold it in trust “for the purposes of providing land for Indians.” The Act defines Indians as “all persons of Indian descent who are members of any recognized tribe now under federal jurisdiction.”
The government argued that it could take land into trust for tribes no matter when they were federally recognized, but the Supreme Court said the law “unambiguously refers to those tribes that were under federal jurisdiction” when the law was enacted.
The Narragansett Tribe wasn’t officially recognized until 1983, after it fought hard to regain the reservation land it lost in 1880, after Rhode Island lawmakers disbanded the tribe.
Five years before it was officially recognized, the tribe received 1,800 acres in Rhode Island in exchange for relinquishing its claims to state land based on aboriginal title.
The state later challenged the tribe’s plan to build houses on 31 additional acres of land it bought in Charlestown, about 40 miles south of Providence.
While the litigation was pending, the Secretary of the Interior accepted the 31 acres into trust. The Interior Board of Indian Appeals affirmed that decision, as did the district court and 1st Circuit.
But the Supreme Court ruled that Rhode Island, and not the federal government or the tribe, should be the final authority over those 31 acres.
Justice John Paul Stevens, the only justice to fully dissent, called the majority decision a “cramped reading” of the 1934 law.