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In the Picture: One Multi-Acre Plot of Land for Every American Indian Family

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.
(Photo: Aaron Huey)

(Photo: Aaron Huey)

  • In 1887, the Dawes Act allotted one multi-acre plot of land for nearly every American Indian family, with the goal of moving Indians into the mainstream U.S. economy via enterprises like farming and ranching.
  • The act stipulated that the federal government would manage the allotments for 25 years, and then—once the Indians had established their affairs on the land— hand it over to them.
  • Today, the federal government still manages 11 million acres of that land.
  • Because of a historic lack of probate laws in Indian Country, and the large number of Indians who have died without a will, many allotments have been passed down to every single living heir of an original owner, creating what are called highly fractionated tracts of land, with hundreds—even thousands—of owners.
  • More than 1,200 people own a single tract near Crow Creek in South Dakota.
  • As part of its responsibility to manage the Indian allotments, the Department of the Interior must manage, and disburse to Indians via trust accounts, the income derived from third-party uses of the land—uses like grazing, oil extraction, and commercial and residential leases.
  • Interior estimates that half of the highly fractionated parcels of land in Indian Country generated no income in 2013.
  • As of June 30, the department was searching for 63,499 Indians with trust accounts whose whereabouts were unknown. The combined value of those accounts was $98.5 million.
  • After a 2009 class-action settlement concerning the accounting of trust funds, Congress appropriated $1.9 billion for Interior to purchase land interests from willing sellers and transfer the land to the sellers’ tribes.
  • More than $1 billion is held in trust for eight Sioux nations—including the Oglala Sioux at Pine Ridge (where this family lives). Most of that money is interest earned on a $102 million settlement with the U.S. government, from 1980, for the government’s taking of the Black Hills. The tribes will likely never touch the money: They want the land back.

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