By Krista J. Kapralos Herald Writer
If federal lawmakers don’t clarify questions raised by a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, ownership of land held in trust for tribes throughout the nation could be in doubt, including in Snohomish County.
The nation’s highest court in February ruled that the federal Department of the Interior can only take land into trust status for tribes that were under federal jurisdiction as of 1934, the year Congress approved the Indian Reorganization Act. That means states could claim land that currently makes up reservations of any tribe that was not protected under an existing treaty or other agreement at that time.
Tulalip reservation land would likely be protected because that government, which represents a federation of tribes, was created by the 1934 legislation.
The Stillaguamish Indian Tribe didn’t gain federal recognition until 1976, but attorneys for that tribe aren’t worried about the recent decision. The Stillaguamish have been under federal jurisdiction since 1855, when a handful of local tribes signed the Treaty of Point Elliott with the federal government, said Brian Collins, a lawyer for the tribe.
“From a Stillaguamish standpoint, we feel very sure that there’s a long-standing relationship with the United States,” Collins said.
The tribes that signed that treaty were asked to move to the Tulalip Indian Reservation. The Indian Reorganization Act established the Tulalip Tribes, which was meant to govern members of all the tribes that signed the treaty.
It’s hard to know how state leaders will interpret the decision, said Richard Guest of the Native American Rights Fund. Guest is one of more than a dozen attorneys involved in the case.
The Supreme Court decision came after the state of Rhode Island tried to block the Department of the Interior from taking land into trust on behalf of the Narragansett Tribe.
Rhode Island leaders were worried that the tribe would build a casino on the land, Guest said.
“The state believes that all lands within the state should be subject to state civil and criminal laws, including Indian lands,” Guest said.
Land transferred into trust would mean it would be subject to federal jurisdiction and immune from state laws. Since 1934, the Interior Department has handled land-into-trust transfers, apparently abiding by the phrase in the act that states that the department can do so for “any recognized tribe now under federal jurisdiction.”
The Supreme Court ruled that the word “now” in that phrase means tribes under federal jurisdiction in 1934. The Interior Department is acting beyond its authority when it takes into trust land owned by tribes brought under federal jurisdiction after 1934, the justices wrote.
Guest and other attorneys with the Native American Rights Fund argue that all tribes were under federal jurisdiction as of the late 1790s, when the federal government decided that only it could approve the sale of Indian land. Still, to clarify the matter, the Native American Rights Fund and other tribal leaders have asked Congress to adjust the wording of the Indian Reorganization Act to ensure that all federally recognized tribes are able to have trust land. It’s not clear whether Congress will comply.