United States Department of the Interior
United States Department of the Interior advertisement offering “Indian Land for Sale.” The man pictured is a Yankton Sioux named Not Afraid Of Pawnee.

How U.S. Allotment Policy Devastated Native Lands

Duane Champagne

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.

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.

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Betty Bruns  Munguia's picture
Betty Bruns Munguia
Submitted by Betty Bruns Munguia on
That's such a same all the free and Beautiful land and Indians being taken advantage of for corporations to destroy <3

Nicole Tonkovich's picture
Nicole Tonkovich
Submitted by Nicole Tonkovich on
If you're interested in learning exactly how allotment was carried out on the Nez Perce Reservation, please see my new book, _The Allotment Plot_, published by University of Nebraska Press.

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on

Jenny Barrows's picture
Jenny Barrows
Submitted by Jenny Barrows on
The truth of this is what should be taught as the true history of North Amerca.

Anthony L. Delorme (Tony)'s picture
Anthony L. Delo...
Submitted by Anthony L. Delo... on
Allotted Lands were supposed to be held in trust!... Never to be sold....

Anthony L. Delorme (Tony)'s picture
Anthony L. Delo...
Submitted by Anthony L. Delo... on
Allotted Lands were supposed to be held in trust!... Never to be sold....

Rick Rosio's picture
Rick Rosio
Submitted by Rick Rosio on
As a child of the Termination Act of 1956 the destruction of the Menominee People continued. It took until 1973 for the Supreme Court to rule that the 1st Nations People had a right to their treaties and to be treated with respect and dignity. There is much for this government to atone for..if they want to be honest about how the Native Tribes were destroyed and our lands taken....

Donna Clements's picture
Donna Clements
Submitted by Donna Clements on
Makes me ill!

Ogema's picture
Submitted by Ogema on
Yes this is sad but we need to educate our children and teach them to beat them at their own game. ? Education is our future to survive as the true Human Beings of Turtle Island!

Rawkin Mohawk's picture
Rawkin Mohawk
Submitted by Rawkin Mohawk on
From the beads traded on Manhattan to the lies told to Red Cloud and onward into the casino frenzy of today, the native has been duped, exploited, lied to, hornswaggled, bushwhacked, divided and cheated into a Christian society bearing booze and bad news..."oops! we were just kidding when we said that!"

Douglas Baker's picture
Douglas Baker
Submitted by Douglas Baker on
There were many ways to take American land away from those who held it; but surely the most successful leading to Occidental occupation and take over of American lands was genocide pure and simple.

Big ol Paiute's picture
Big ol Paiute
Submitted by Big ol Paiute on
The reality of it is this: "Trust" doesn't mean jack... look at what they did in California through allotment, many Tribes lost their federally recognized status due to allotment, although the U.S. was to still hold their lands in "trust" many of the lands were still taxed by local counties and many Indians lost their land. So much for :trust duty"... it was an easy way for the U.S. to rid itself of the "Indian problem".

Bruce Anderson's picture
Bruce Anderson
Submitted by Bruce Anderson on
I was Just reading Mr. Russel Means Book Where White Men Fear To Tread then after seeing this piece and now comparing notes and historical views from the Home Stead Act of 1862 then on to the Dawes Act of 1887 v/s the views out of Mr. Russel Means Book {Where White Men Fear Tread, where much of it was in complete violation of the Fort Laramie 1851 treaty that granted simple and limited right of way for transportation to the west cost only , in the span of time from 1851 -1887 for the context of the point, when WHITE Started to settle along the Bozemen up to about 1866 then started digging for gold etc, {Chap 43} from Mr. Means Book his points show a point in reflection of debates of land water way and or resources rights. and or Id of rights with Congressional actions as like say of or with the Key Stone Oil Pipe Line and the Border Matters and the lack of the respect of the compacts clauses in respect of any new compacts with another nation and or country to respect the real origin context of Voting rights ballot or even referendum voting with them let alone the rest of America., as like in some context is the failure of Obama care.