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How U.S. Allotment Policy Devastated Native Lands

One way or another, government engineered allotment policy has greatly limited the benefits that Indians can reap from allotted lands.

Most individual Indian landholders do not make significant money or even a living off their trust allotments. Individual Indian landholders were allotted land under one of several allotment acts. Allotment policy required the Office of Indian Affairs to survey land, divide the land into allotments for individual Indians, and the remainder was sold by the government to U.S. citizens. The policy was designed to remove Indians from tribally managed land arrangements and grant individual ownership.

The individual Indian allotments, usually about 160 acres were, after a period of years—often 25 years—transferred to fee simple ownership. Fee simple ownership enabled Indian landholders to sell the land to anyone. The trust status of the land was removed. Between 1888 and 1934, about 90 million acres of land were transferred from Indian reservations to U.S. citizens and out of Indian management.

Not only did the transfers remove land out of Indian control, but also removed individual Indian allotments from tribal collective management. The allotments were held in trust under the Office of Indian Affairs and removed from traditional tribal forms of property management and distribution. Many tribal nations divided the land among clans, villages, families, or bands. The land was used for hunting, gathering, farming, and for village sites. Each group in the nation respected the economic rights of the other groups to exploit a recognized segment of land for economic purposes. Each group had the right to recognized continued use of their land assignment as long as the land was used. If an assignment of land was left unused for a few years, other tribal members could move onto the land and use the economic resources. Local groups had use rights to the land, and could trade or sell their rights to other tribal members, but not to non-tribal members. The land was held by the entire nation, and could not be sold or traded to outsiders by individuals or local groups.

Mark Trahant

During the 1830s, when the United States pressed Indian nations for removal and land cessions, some tribes like the Creek and Cherokee enacted explicit laws that prohibited village leaders from selling land without permission of the national council. Some prominent tribal leaders among the Cherokee and Creeks were executed by tribal authorities for breaking the rule of selling land without permission. As late as the 1880s, tribal property rules among the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creeks and Seminoles of Oklahoma were the foundation of sustainable, self-sufficient tribal economies that included large cattle ranches, and a majority of tribal members who managed small farms. Traditional Indian land property rules were adapted and supported the tribal communities in ways that were compatible with their cultures and traditions, and changing market conditions.

The allotment acts were aimed at destroying tribal management of land, a major asset, and turning management and control of the remaining Indian lands over to the federal and state government. This method not only extracted land out of Indian control, but removed allotted lands from the tribal system of property rights and management. Individual Indian lands, when made fee simple and removed from trust, were subject to taxation and market forces. Many Individual Indian landowners quickly lost their land through failure to pay taxes or through accumulated debts which led to foreclosure. Had the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 not stopped the sale of Indian allotments and returned allotments to federal trust, much more land would have been lost, very little would have been left to tribal control.

Individual allotments remain unproductive for tribal members. Most individual allotments are leased to non-tribal farmers or businesses, who make considerable profits while Indian owners receive rents, and usually remain in poverty. With the passage of time and generations, accumulated joint ownership of allotments has further inhibited tribal members from securing adequate income from their allotments. One way or another, government engineered allotment policy has greatly limited the benefits that Indians can reap from allotted lands.