The Narragansett and the Carcieri Fix

Thursday November 29, 2012

By Dina Gilio-Whitaker

This week Indian country awaited word from the Senate as to whether or not they would advance a bill known as the "Carcieri Fix" (S. 676), a wait which has been ongoing for almost 4 years, according to an article in Indian Country Today Media Network on November 28. The legislation would amend the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 to allow the Department of the Interior to place Indian lands in trust, which in effect makes them reservation lands, and thus protected by laws that support tribal sovereignty. The bill is a "fix" to the Supreme Court decision in Carcieri v. Salazar (2009). In that decision the court determined that the DOI did not have the authority to place lands into trust which were acquired after 1934, representing a deadly blow to tribes' sovereignty and efforts at self-determination and nation-building.

The case arose when the Narragansett tribe of Rhode Island attempted to have 31 acres of land placed into trust which they could then develop and be relatively free of state laws. The state sued the DOI (assumedly not happy with the revenue they would lose from that tax base, and other benefits they would otherwise enjoy). According to the ICTMN article, "The misguided high court ruling has created chaos in Indian country, including hindering tribes from nation building and providing programs for their citizens, litigation over proposed and existing trust lands, safety issues, a backlog of land into trust applications, questions over the tax status of Indian lands, and difficulty for tribal governments to borrow money. Tribal leaders hope the clean Carcieri fix will be passed during the current lame duck session."

One of the problems with the court's decision, of course, is the precedent it sets in federal Indian law. But it also has a punitive effect for tribes like the Narragansett who did not achieve federal recognition until after 1934. Many of these tribes often don't have a land base, having long since lost their lands to the colonial process (federal recognition does not come with the restoration of land). Without a land base it is nearly impossible to build an economy, thereby hampering the exercise of meaningful self-determination. Thus, tribal nations devastated from centuries of ongoing colonial oppression are also still denied the possibility for economic self-sufficiency.


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