Traditionally, land was held and used in common by American Indian peoples. U.S. policies such as allotment - distributing land titles to individuals - were assaults on Dakota and Ojibwe traditions.



Indians assembling to take their allotment of land
White Earth, 1905

Allotment was a U.S. policy in Indian affairs intended to serve two purposes:

  • wrest control of reservation land away from American Indians, and
  • eliminate the traditional Indigenous relationship to land.

Traditionally, land was held and used in common by American Indian peoples. Allotment broke down this tradition by assigning land titles to individuals. By the time that Ojibwe and Dakota people began ceding land to the U.S., allotment was a common element of treaties.

In some treaties, land was reserved in common for tribes, but tracts were allotted to “mixed blood” or “half breed” individuals (often relatives of U.S. treaty signers), who could sell the land. Later, in treaties such as the 1858 Dakota treaties, land was reserved for American Indians only under the condition that it be allotted to individual tribal members.

Eventually, allotment became one of the centerpieces of U.S. policies toward American Indians…

"the culmination of American attempts to destroy tribes and their governments and to open Indian lands to settlement by non-Indians and to development by railroads."

Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture

Even land reserved in treaties for tribes to hold in common was targeted for allotment after the treaty-making era. In 1887, the General Allotment Act (or “Dawes Act”) was passed by the U.S. Congress, calling for the allotment of reservation land to individual owners. Tracts of land were assigned to individuals, but somehow after this allotment, millions of acres remained unassigned. This land – 90,000,000 of the 150,000,000 acres still reserved by American Indians in 1887, was called “excess” or “surplus” land by the U.S., and sold to American individuals or corporations (supposedly for the benefit of tribes). Consequently, groups such as the Ojibwe at Leech Lake and White Earth own only small fractions of the land on their own reservations.

Learn more about land loss through allotment at Indian Land Tenure Foundation.