A ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court has put several potential casino projects across the country into doubt.
The Supreme Court last week ruled that the federal government cannot place land into trust (creating sovereign tribal territory) for Native American tribes that received federal recognition after the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. This makes it exceedingly difficult for tribes like the recently recognized Mashpee Wampanoag of Massachusetts to undertake planned casino projects.
The court case involved the Narragansett tribe of Rhode Island, which attempt to put 31 acres of land into trust in Charleston, R.I. State officials, concerned that the tribe would attempt to build a casino on the land, argued that the law prohibits the federal government from putting land into trust for tribes recognized after 1934. The Narragansetts became federally recognized in 1983. The Supreme Court agreed by a 6-3 vote, with Justice Clarence Thomas writing the majority opinion.
“Because the record in this case establishes that the Narragansett Tribe was not under federal jurisdiction when the IRA was enacted, the secretary [of the interior] does not have the authority to take the parcel at issue into trust," Thomas wrote.
The Mashpees received federal recognition in 2007 and have since applied to put 140 acres of land near Mashpee, Mass., on Cape Cod, as well as 539 acres of land in Middleboro, Mass., into federal trust. The Middleboro land is the site of a planned $1 billion casino resort project, but the court decision puts that plan into doubt.
The court decision could affect other planned casinos as well. For example, the Gun Lake Band of the Pottawatomi tribe of Michigan was recognized in 1998 and in January put 147 acres of land into trust in Wayland County. The tribe plans to build a casino on the land, but now casino opponents are investigating whether the Supreme Court decision gives them a weapon to have that federal government action reversed.
A possible solution to the problem now faced by the Mashpees is that Congress could step in and change the federal law concerning Native American Land in a way that would benefit those tribes recognized after 1934. There’s been no move yet from congressional leaders on the issue.