Cobell Lawsuit & Settlement | Trust

In These Times: Fractionation a big issue in Cobell settlement

"Joseph Reynolds knew that he owned land on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, but he didn’t know exactly where. Reynolds, who inherited the land from his grandparents, believed as many as 1,000 acres were waiting for him to build a life on. In 1971, when he moved back to South Dakota from California, the then-23-year-old contacted the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). They sent him a 12-page document detailing his inheritance.

Reynolds visited the reservation’s BIA office and asked if officials would show him what he owned. One man told him: “I’ll take you out there. And that baseball cap you’re wearing—you can just throw it in the air and wherever it lands, that can be the land you own.”

Reynolds quickly discovered that, thanks to a Byzantine federal system of managing tribal land, he had inherited only a fraction of his grandparents’ property title.

That discovery was the result of “fractionation,” a practice dating back to the 1887 passage of the General Allotment Act, also known as the Dawes Act, which intended to “civilize” Indians by assimilating them into a sedentary, agrarian lifestyle. The legislation divided 138 million acres of communally owned tribal land across the nation into 160-, 80- or 40-acre parcels. The government distributed those parcels to individual tribe members, but at the same time still held the land in trust, believing Indians incapable of managing their own affairs. It was, and to this day remains, a system rooted in the government’s racist assumption that it can manage Indian reservations better than Indians."

Get the Story:
This Land Is Our Land (In These Times 6/27)

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