The Narragansett Indian Tribe bought a 31-acre (12.5-hectare) 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.
On Monday, 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 that 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.