Monday, December 21, 2009

Senate Indian Affairs Committee Approves Land Into Trust Fix

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This installment of The Tribes In The Media is a Providence Journal article on legislation approved by the U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee last week that seeks to amend the ¨land into trust¨ laws.

Senate panel OKs bill to overturn ruling on Narragansetts
John E. Mulligan
The Providence Journal
December 17, 2009

WASHINGTON -- Without dissent, a key Senate panel took a big step Thursday toward reversing last winter's U.S. Supreme Court decision that blocked a special land status for the Narragansett Indians -- and many other tribes across the country.

The bipartisan vote of the Indian Affairs Committee to send the measure to the full Senate for debate was an important milestone on the path toward enactment of a bill that is a high priority in Indian Country and has the strong support of the Obama administration.

Rhode Island Democratic Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse have said, however, that they are prepared to oppose the measure on the Senate floor if necessary.

Other opponents include the town of Charlestown; Governor Carcieri; Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch; Rep. James R. Langevin, the Democrat who represents the Narragansetts and their neighbors; and officials in a number of other states. Opponents assert that the measure threatens to provoke more clashes between Indian tribes on the one hand and state and local interests on the other. In Rhode Island and other states, the worry at the root of the opposition is that the legislation could open the door to gambling casinos on tribe-held land. Langevin, Reed and Whitehouse oppose any change in law that would permit the Narragansetts to pursue casino gambling without the approval of Rhode Island voters.

The author of the legislation, Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, Democrat of North Dakota, said in an interview that his measure "is not about gaming.''

The Narragansetts have worked hard but without success over the years to secure gambling rights in Rhode Island. They have said, however, that the parcel of land at issue in the Supreme Court case was meant not for gambling but for housing.

The Supreme Court ruled that the Narragansetts were ineligible to have that piece of land taken into federal trust because the special status was available only to tribes recognized by the federal government as of 1934. Tribal lands that are taken into federal trust are removed from the jurisdiction of local and state laws and taxes.

The Narragansetts and other tribes viewed the Supreme Court decision as a blow to native American sovereignty. Tribal advocates said the ruling has disturbed the system of taking Indian lands into federal trust, clouding the status of economic development, law enforcement and other undertakings on tribe-owned parcels nationwide.

The key provision in the pending legislation would essentially restore the status quo before the Supreme Court ruling, removing the effective date of 1934 from the pertinent section of a landmark law that is the basis for much of the modern relationship between native tribes and the federal government.

In other words, the Narragansetts and other tribes federally recognized after 1934 would once again be allowed to request that their lands be taken into government trust.

One big question mark about prospects for the legislation is whether Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, will schedule it for a full Senate vote.

Reid has taken no position on this bill specifically but he has been a strong opponent of using a mechanism at the heart of the Rhode Island case -- federal land trust -- to create gambling casinos outside the boundaries of Indian reservations.

The House version of the "Carcieri fix'' -- so called after the name of the Supreme Court case, Carcieri v. Salazar -- has yet to be voted by the committee with jurisdiction over Indian issues, the Natural Resources Committee.
The panel's chairman, Rep. Nick J. Rahall II, Democrat of West Virginia, said in an interview Wednesday that he hopes to schedule a vote early in the new year.

Democratic Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy, the Rhode Island delegation's only supporter of the measure, has said he believes it can be signed into law next year.

But Kennedy has also predicted that the Narragansetts will never win casino gambling rights in Rhode Island without the agreement of state officials, including the rest of the congressional delegation.