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9th Cir. Sides With Big Lagoon Rancheria in Land Dispute

By Peter Clarke, JD on June 10, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Big Lagoon Rancheria, an Indian tribe near Humboldt County, CA, won a major victory in a recent Ninth Circuit decision. Following the decision, the tribe may finally be able to go forward with its plans to build a new Indian casino and hotel.

The lawsuit involved a few acres of land near Humboldt County. In 1994, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) gave this land in trust to Big Lagoon Rancheria, a small but federally recognized tribe.

While the legal issues surrounding this case have varied over the years, the present case focused on California's two major complaints: 1) Whether Big Lagoon has the legal right to build a casino on the land placed in trust and 2) Whether Big Lagoon actually has federally recognized status as a Native American tribe.

Status of the Land

California argued that BIA went outside the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) when it took the land into trust. The Ninth Circuit disagreed with this criticism, explaining that California failed to file a timely challenge to the BIA's action.

This holding is important for many Indian tribes: if the BIA wasn't allowed to take this land into trust for Big Lagoon, then this would "cast doubt over countless acres of land that have been taken into trust for tribes." Notably, the court distinguished California's "collateral attack" from the 2009 case of Carcieri v. Salazar, which the court characterized as "a timely administrative challenge brought against the Secretary of the Interior."

Many tribes can now breathe a sigh of relief for any number of properties that might have been impacted if California had won this argument.

Big Lagoon's Federally Recognized Status

California challenged the federal recognized status of Big Lagoon, pointing out that there's no clear documentation for how Big Lagoon came to be included in the 1979 list of "Indian Tribal Entities."

The court was unimpressed with this argument because California hadn't brought an appropriate challenge under the APA. Even if an appropriate challenge had been brought, California's argument would have failed because they waited too long: the statute of limitations for the APA runs out after six years.

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