Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Allotment in severalty is the process of dividing collectively occupied lands into individually owned parcels. European Americans applied the concept to Native Americans many times, beginning in the colonial era and culminating in the passage of the 1887 General Allotment (Dawes) Act. It began as a strategy for rewarding cooperative Native leaders with large parcels of land. Later, the government used allotments to appease Indian peoples who opposed being removed from their homelands. When Native Americans were removed from the southeastern United States in the 1830s, treaties granted allotments of land to families who wished to stay, while dictating the terms of removal to the Southern Plains for all others. Many people who took allotments under these treaties lost them to fraud perpetrated by land speculators.

As the reservation policy emerged in the 1850s, the United States began inserting allotment provisions into land cession treaties. The treaties divided reservation lands into individual parcels at the president's discretion, but this use of allotment served no clear policy objective. In the late 1860s the government reinvented allotment in severalty as an assimilation strategy. Reformers believed that individualized landownership (private property) would help transform Native Americans into farmers, thereby integrating them into the American economy. Development-oriented westerners supported the idea, hoping that allotment would free up "surplus" lands for settlement, mining, ranching, and forestry. The uneasy alliance of these two powerful interest groups helped win passage of the General Allotment (Dawes) Act in 1887, after eight years of congressional debate. Similarly, in the Prairie Provinces in the 1870s and 1880s, newly created reserves for First Nations were allotted into individual and family parcels as part of the assimilation program.

During the debate over severalty legislation in the United States, Native Americans voiced their opinions on the topic. Some, like the Omahas, lobbied for their own allotment acts to secure title to their homelands. Others, like the Five Tribes of Indian Territory, petitioned to be excluded from the Dawes Act, arguing that they were already su.ciently "Americanized."

The Dawes Act mandated the division of reservations into individually owned allotments of land, using a base size of 160 acres for adult males and smaller amounts for other tribal members. Typically, though, allotment sizes were determined on a reservation-by-reservation basis, and often all members of the tribe received the same acreage. Unallotted "surplus" land could be purchased by the federal government and sold to non-Indians. The allotments themselves were to remain in trust (protected against sale and untaxed) for twenty-five years, but Congress eroded this protection in the 1890s and early 1900s.

The president determined which reservations would be allotted, and pressure from development interests usually drove his selections. Tribes in the Plains were singled out more frequently than those in other regions because ranchers and farmers wanted access to their lands. Plains tribes were also disproportionately targeted by competency commissions that decided which allottees were "competent" to handle their own business affairs. "Competent" individuals were compelled to take outright title to their allotments, dissolving the trust status and leaving the land vulnerable to sale.

The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 officially ended the allotment policy. But many tribes continue to deal with the complex geographic, legal, and economic legacy of the legislation, which turned their reservations into patchworks of tribal lands, allotments, and non-Indian lands.

See also LAW: Dawes Act.

Emily Greenwald University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Carlson, Leonard A. Indians, Bureaucrats, and Land: The Dawes Act and the Decline of Indian Farming. Westport CT: Greenwood Press, 1981.

McDonnell, Janet A. The Dispossession of the American Indian, 1887–1934. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.

Otis, D. S. The Dawes Act and the Allotment of Indian Lands. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1973.

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