What are the land issues Indians face? The Indians face issues of checkerboard reservations, fractionation of land and diminishment of land.
In 1887, President Cleveland signed the General Allotment Act, also known as the Dawes Act, that authorized the government to divide reservations and allot tracts of land to individual Indians.
Each head of household received 160 acres; single individuals over 18 received 80 acres; and children under 18 received 40 acres. The remaining reservation land, considered "surplus," was opened to homesteaders. In the years since the allotment period, land was removed from Indian ownership through sale, illegal takings and inheritance. Additionally, Indian landowners lost land through foreclosures for back taxes when fee patents were issued to allottees, often without their approval and knowledge.
Title to the land on most reservations today is held by many different entities, including tribes, individual Indians, non-Indian individuals and groups, the state, the county and the federal government. This checkerboard pattern of ownership causes problems including jurisdictional issues, coordination of services and what could be generously described as neighbor relations.
One of the key issues is fractionated title or undivided ownership interests. This problem arose from the General Allotment Act and subsequent attempts by the federal government to deal with heirship as the original allottees passed on. The title to the allotment, but not the physical land, was divided equally among every eligible heir unless a will had been written directing the distribution of assets.
As the generations have passed, the number of undivided interests in each allotment has grown and the size of each interest diminished. The fractionated ownership has created serious problems in the use and management of Indian land. Indian interest holders are unable to use their land because of probate backlogs, difficulty contacting multiple co-owners, problems executing real estate transactions and the mismanagement of funds derived from the land. The chart below summarizes the average degree of fractionation of Indian lands in the nine BIA regions.
BIA Region Number of allotment/tribal tracts Average number of ownership interests per allotment
Great Plains 59,093 21.1
Midwest 9,042 26.1
Southern Plains 11,142 17.4
Rocky Mountains 37,982 24.2
Southwest 1,941 5.7
Western 13,291 24.2
Navajo 5,883 37.2
Northwest 34,040 10.7
Pacific 3,838 10.9
Alaska 4,790 2.9
However, many allotments have significantly more owners than these averages suggest. For example, the most fractionated tract within the Great Plains region has 1,300+ land owner interests (the tract is located at Crow Creek). The most fractionated tract within the Midwest Region has 1,400+ land owner interests (the tract is located at Fond du Lac).
Diminishment of Land as an Asset
There is approximately 55 million acres of tribal and individual trust Indian land within the United States. This is down 64% from the land base guaranteed by treaties of approximately 156 million acres in 1881. Tribes with large, rural reservations were particularly damaged by federal Indian land policies from 1887 to1934. Within the Upper Great Plains, Rocky Mountains, and Pacific Northwest, there are 11,330,193 acres of tribal trust land and 6,830,788 acres of individual trust land. This is merely 23% of the 75,618,755 original Indian land base guaranteed by treaties and agreements.
The opportunity to utilize the land base as an economic engine has been greatly diminished, which has had a devastating impact on the economic and social well-being of Indians living on reservations. The reservations of the Upper Great Plains, for example, were among the largest established and yet today the unemployment rate ranges between 45 and 90 percent on these reservations. Poverty rates for Indians living on reservations in North Dakota and South Dakota were 39.8% and 51.8% respectively in 2000.
In addition to the diminishment of Indian land as an economic asset, the inheritance pattern and the lack of estate planning in Indian Country have also contributed to the grave challenges faced by American Indians. The ability of an individual Indian to treat his or her ownership of a piece of land as an asset to be used is constantly being reduced by increased fractionation of the land. To many Indian people, land ownership has little meaning because of the difficulties in trying to exert some control over the management of the asset when there are many "co-owners" and that number is increasing. As a result, many Indians relinquish the ability to actively use and manage their land, which is in turn leased or rented to non-natives through the BIA.
Furthermore, fractionation and the complexity of Indian land tenure and inheritance have created enormous uncertainty as to what property assets and rights native people have. Due to an overwhelming backlog of probates, many Indians do not know whether they are interest or land holders or not. Understaffed probate offices have a backlog nationally of approximately 14,000 probate cases, many of which have a direct bearing on land ownership.