PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The Narragansett Indian Tribe bought a 31-acre lot in 1991, saying it would be used for "economic development" and housing for the elderly and poor.
However, the state of Rhode Island, fearing the tribe really wants to create a tax-free zone or build a casino, sued to block the Narragansetts from putting the land into federal trust, which would essentially free it from state and local law.
Today, their fight reaches the U.S. Supreme Court in a case being closely watched across the country because it could determine how tribes recognized after the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act are allowed to buy, govern and use land.
States rights factor heavily into the case. The Bush administration sides with the tribe, arguing the 1934 act allows it to take land into trust to benefit American Indians regardless of when their tribes were recognized.
Rhode Island and 21 other states want the Supreme Court to limit that authority because states lose control over tribal trust land within their own borders. They say trust lands can alter the character of surrounding communities, especially when casino income allows tribes to embark on major projects.
Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick Lynch said allowing the federal government to place the Narragansetts' land into trust would free it from state criminal laws and from safety and zoning rules, and allow operation of tax-free shops that undercut a financially struggling state's revenue collection.
"Criminals theoretically could go, commit crimes in the rest of Rhode Island and hide on that land, and we'd be unable to go get them," Lynch said.
Narragansett Chief Sachem Matthew Thomas, leader of the 2,400-member tribe, scoffs at the notion that tribal land would become lawless and notes that many states have learned to coexist with tribal reservations. His tribe hopes to use its sovereignty as a bargaining chip to stimulate development.