In 1978, Congress enacted the Rhode Island Indian Claims Settlement Act, implementing a settlement between the State and the Narragansett Indians of land claims brought by the Tribe. In addition to providing for money and settlement lands, the Act anticipated the formal federal recognition of the Tribe. After securing recognition, the Tribe filed an application to have the Department of the Interior acquire 32 acres into trust for a Department of Housing and Urban Development-funded low income housing project for elderly tribal members, which Interior approved.
The Interior Department’s approval of that application precipitated almost a decade of litigation with the State of Rhode Island and the town of Charlestown through which myriad Constitutional and statutory attacks were leveled at the Secretary’s authority to acquire land into trust for the Tribe. The Indian Resources Section successfully defended against these attacks in the District Court and the Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court, however, held in 2009 that the word “Indian,” which is defined in the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) to include “all persons of Indian descent who are members of any recognized tribe now under Federal jurisdiction,” limits the Interior Secretary’s trust acquisition authority to tribes that were “under federal jurisdiction” in 1934, and therefore any tribes recognized subsequently could not have their lands taken into trust by the Secretary pursuant to the IRA.
Carcieri v. Kempthorne, 497 F. 3d 15 (2009)