In the late 1800s, federal lawmakers attempted to impose private land ownership on Native American reservations. Land that had been held communally by all members of a tribe was divided into allotments. These were assigned to individual Indians, while the leftovers (and there was much land left over) were given to non-native settlers.
Over the ensuing decades, the allotments passed to the children and grandchildren of the first recipients. Often, basic rules of probate were applied. Each time a parcel changed hands, ownership shares were simply divided among the heirs. Today, many allotments are owned by dozens of people, stymieing attempts to put them to use, and turning a potential source of livelihood into a source of discord instead.
In 1996, Elouise Cobell, of northern Montana's Blackfeet Tribe, sued the United States to force reform. Her effort resulted in one of the largest class action settlement ever awarded against the federal government – $3.4 billion – and new land policies in Indian Country, but the sum, may bring mixed benefits. When distributed among its many claimants, it has often proved too limited to provide lasting benefits, and the new policies may prove to be yet another mechanism by which individual Indians lose their connection to the land.
I took these photos while on assignment on the Blackfeet Reservation for High Country News Magazine. Read Sierra Crane Murdoch's story here.