Indian Land Tenure Foundation Works to Help Clear Indian-owned Land Titles

Example of Undivided Heirship

Example of the Effects of Undivided Heirship

Last month, the Indian Land Tenure Foundation (ILTF) shared its story of a recent victory in protecting a site sacred to the Oceti Sakowin called Pe’ Sla.

ILTF was in the news again recently in a story from Minnesota Public Radio about a U.S. Department of Interior plan to clear up decades of mismanagement of Indian lands with the ultimate goal of returning the control of land to the tribes.

The mismanagement that the plan hopes to correct is “fractionated ownership,” which began when the General Allotment Act, also known as the Dawes Act, was passed in 1887. The act allowed reservation land to be given to individual Indians. The federal government held the land in trust and each heir of the original landowner was added to the title. According to Cris Stainbrook, president of ILTF, the result is the average parcel of land has 15 owners and it is not uncommon to have a 160- acre parcel with over 1,000 owners.

Fractionated ownership has prevented land development because of cluttered titles or lack of clarity about who owns the land. Land use is compromised because an undivided interest owner must gain consent from a majority of the parcel’s owners to do anything with the land. This makes it nearly impossible for any one of the owners to develop the land for agriculture, business development or a homesite.

To help rectify the situation, the federal government will pay all owners who are willing for their share of a land parcel and turn the land over to the tribes. Unfortunately, there is not enough money to clear all the land titles and the buyback process is expected to take as long as 10 years. Even when the land is owned by the tribe, development is micromanaged and all development efforts have to be approved through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. ILTF is advocating for the tribes themselves to be allowed to help run the program and speed things up.

I encourage you to learn more about Indian land issues on the ILTF website. February 8, 2012 marked the 125-year anniversary of the act. In response ILTF published a video discussing the Dawes Act’s legacy called A Matter of Honor, available on YouTube.

-Kaitlin Ostlie, MCF administrative assistant

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