Manataka American Indian Council









The Indian Land Tenure Foundation is a diverse community with a shared vision


The Indian Land Tenure Foundation is a nonprofit organization that is community organized and community directed. The community includes Indian landowners, Indian people on and off reservations, Indian land organizations, tribal communities, tribal governments and others connected to Indian land issues. 
The Indian Land Tenure Foundation is independently governed organization that supports activities related to the acquisition, ownership and management of land by tribes and Indian individuals. ILTF functions as a community foundation by accepting gifts from individuals, organizations and businesses and re-distributing funds to Indian land programs in a focused manner.

The Foundation's focus is to educate, support activities and raise funds to carry out goals related to Indian land tenure. The goals come from the hearts and souls of tribal community members striving to make reservations a better place to live, now, and for future generations. 


The Indian Land Tenure Community set the following goal for the Foundation: Lands within the original boundaries of every reservation and other areas of high significance where tribes retain aboriginal interest are in Indian ownership and management.  The issues associated with modern Indian land tenure are found nationwide. For this reason, the Indian Land Tenure Foundation will focus its resources, grant-making and investments on maintaining the integrity of Indian land across the United States.

Checkerboard Reservations

Today, Indians face issues of checkerboard reservations, fractionation of land and diminishment of land.

In 1887, President Cleveland signed the General Allotment Act, also known as the Dawes Act, that authorized the government to divide reservations and allot tracts of land to individual Indians.


Each head of household received 160 acres; single individuals over 18 received 80 acres; and children under 18 received 40 acres. The remaining reservation land, considered "surplus," was opened to homesteaders. In the years since the allotment period, land was removed from Indian ownership through sale, illegal takings and inheritance. Additionally, Indian landowners lost land through foreclosures for back taxes when fee patents were issued to allottees, often without their approval and knowledge.


Title to the land on most reservations today is held by many different entities, including tribes, individual Indians, non-Indian individuals and groups, the state, the county and the federal government. This checkerboard pattern of ownership causes problems including jurisdictional issues, coordination of services and what could be generously described as neighbor relations.



One of the key issues is fractionated title or undivided ownership interests. This problem arose from the General Allotment Act and subsequent attempts by the federal government to deal with heirship as the original allottees passed on. The title to the allotment, but not the physical land, was divided equally among every eligible heir unless a will had been written directing the distribution of assets.


As the generations have passed, the number of undivided interests in each allotment has grown and the size of each interest diminished. The fractionated ownership has created serious problems in the use and management of Indian land. Indian interest holders are unable to use their land because of probate backlogs, difficulty contacting multiple co-owners, problems executing real estate transactions and the mismanagement of funds derived from the land. The chart below summarizes the average degree of fractionation of Indian lands in the nine BIA regions.


BIA Region

Number of allotment

/tribal tracts

Average number of ownership

 interests per allotment

Great Plains 59,093 21.1
Midwest 9,042 26.1
Southern Plains 11,142 17.4
Rocky Mountains 37,982 24.2
Southwest 1,941 5.7
Western 13,291 24.2
Navajo 5,883 37.2
Northwest 34,040 10.7
Pacific 3,838 10.9
Alaska 4,790 2.9



However, many allotments have significantly more owners than these averages suggest. For example, the most fractionated tract within the Great Plains region has 1,300+ land owner interests (the tract is located at Crow Creek). The most fractionated tract within the Midwest Region has 1,400+ land owner interests (the tract is located at Fond du Lac).


Diminishment of Land as an Asset


There is approximately 55 million acres of tribal and individual trust Indian land within the United States. This is down 64% from the land base guaranteed by treaties of approximately 138 million acres in 1881. Tribes with large, rural reservations were particularly damaged by federal Indian land policies from 1887 to 1934. Within the Upper Great Plains, Rocky Mountains, and Pacific Northwest, there are 11,330,193 acres of tribal trust land and 6,830,788 acres of individual trust land. This is merely 24% of the 75,618,755 original Indian land base guaranteed by treaties and agreements.


The opportunity to utilize the land base as an economic engine has been greatly diminished, which has had a devastating impact on the economic and social well-being of Indians living on reservations. The reservations of the Upper Great Plains, for example, were among the largest established and yet today the unemployment rate ranges between 45 and 90 percent on these reservations. Poverty rates for Indians living on reservations in North Dakota and South Dakota were 39.8% and 51.8% respectively in 2000.


In addition to the diminishment of Indian land as an economic asset, the inheritance pattern and the lack of estate planning in Indian Country have also contributed to the grave challenges faced by American Indians. The ability of an individual Indian to treat his or her ownership of a piece of land as an asset to be used is constantly being reduced by increased fractionation of the land. To many Indian people, land ownership has little meaning because of the difficulties in trying to exert some control over the management of the asset when there are many "co-owners" and that number is increasing. As a result, many Indians relinquish the ability to actively use and manage their land, which is in turn leased or rented to non-natives through the BIA.


Furthermore, fractionation and the complexity of Indian land tenure and inheritance have created enormous uncertainty as to what property assets and rights native people have. Due to an overwhelming backlog of probates, many Indians do not know whether they are interest or land holders or not. Understaffed probate offices have a backlog nationally of over 53,000 probate cases, many of which have a direct bearing on land ownership.

Strategies offer hope

ILTF strives to educate every Indian landowner about Indian land management, ownership and transference issues so that knowledge becomes power when decisions about land assets are made.  ILTF helps increase economic assets of Indian landowners by gaining control of Indian lands and creating financial models that convert land into leverage for Indian owners.  ILTF works to use Indian land to help Indian people discover and maintain their culture.  ILTF is reforming legal mechanisms related to recapturing the physical, cultural and economic assets for Indian people and strengthening sovereignty of Indian land.

The startup funds for ILTF were contributed by Northwest Area Foundation, a private philanthropic foundation based in St. Paul, Minnesota. Smaller contributions have also been received from individuals and businesses.  ILTF will seek additional monies from foundations, corporations, individuals, governments and tribes to operate its programs, provide grants to support other land-related activities and to establish an endowment fund.


The Foundation is community-organized and community directed. The community includes Indian people on and off reservations, members of tribes, tribal governments and non-Indians who are connected to Indian land issues and to each other.

An initial board of directors of 11 people was selected from the land tenure community by a 32 person steering committee. The board includes tribal members, nonmembers, individuals owning trust land, a college student and a representative of a land-related Indian organization. Board members are geographically dispersed throughout the country.


The list is nearly endless and a very good case could be made that every person and entity in the United States has a vested interest in the success of the Indian Land Tenure Foundation. The successful work of ILTF, for example, could help the federal government to effectively and efficiently fulfill its trust responsibilities to Indian people. Entities with a more immediate vested interest include, but are not limited to, tribal communities and governments, individual Indian landowners, Indian land organizations, non-profits, government agencies and other entities involved in Indian land tenure issues.





Indian Land Tenure Foundation
151 East County Road B2
Little Canada, MN 55117-1523
Phone: 651-766-8999
Fax: 651-766-0012






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