Indian Issues:

BLM's Program for Issuing Individual Indian Allotments on Public Lands Is No Longer Viable

GAO-07-23R: Published: Oct 20, 2006. Publicly Released: Oct 20, 2006.

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Robin M. Nazzaro
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Beginning in the late nineteenth century the federal government began an effort to assimilate Indians by transferring them from communal tribal existence to individual land ownership. The Act of February 8, 1887, commonly referred to as the General Allotment Act, initiated the federal government's Indian allotment policy. The act authorized the President to allot parcels of land to individual Indians--generally in sizes of 40, 80, or 160 acres--on Indian reservations and on public lands. The act was implemented by the Department of the Interior's (Interior) Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Under this authority, BIA issued millions of acres of individual allotments on Indian reservations, and BLM issued thousands of acres of individual Indian allotments on public lands. However, in 1934, the Indian Reorganization Act largely reversed the federal government's Indian allotment policy and replaced it with a policy that encouraged tribal self-governance. Section 5 of the Indian Reorganization Act also provided the Secretary of the Interior new authority to acquire land, on and off reservations, on behalf of federally recognized tribes or their members. While the Indian Reorganization Act ended BIA's authority to issue allotments on Indian reservations, it did not address BLM's authority to issue allotments on public lands. Almost 120 years after the 1887 General Allotment Act, BLM still retains that authority and questions have been raised about the continued need for it. Individual Indian allotments present a unique management challenge for BIA--the multiple ownership of a single property (fractionation). In an earlier report on Indian land ownership profiles at select reservations, we found that the 1887 allotment act provided, among other things, that the heirs of an Indian who had been allocated land would inherit the descendant's ownership interests in the land. Because of this provision, the ownership of some allotted land has continually become fractionated as ownership interests have passed from generation to generation. With fractionated land, development (e.g., building a home site) can be difficult because it may require agreement among multiple ownership interests of the development plan. In some cases, fractionated lands have up to several hundred ownership interests. In addition, fractionated land creates increased management responsibilities for BIA because BIA must work with growing ownership interests on the same parcel of land, for example, in distributing mineral royalties. With the passage of the Indian Land Consolidation Act of 1983, the federal government has been trying to reduce the problem of fractionation by consolidating individual Indian land ownership interests into tribal ownership. A 2000 amendment to the 1983 act established a fund to assist tribes in buying back fractional interests in reservation lands. The fiscal year 2006 House Appropriations Committee Report for Interior's appropriation bill directed GAO to study BIA's procedures and practices in implementing its land in trust regulations. We issued our report in July 2006. In response to the direction in the House report and subsequent discussions with Congressional offices, we also agreed to assess the extent to which BLM's program for issuing allotments to individual Indians on public lands is still viable. This correspondence transmits the results of our review of BLM's Indian allotment authority. In addition, we are providing some supplementary information to our July 2006 report on the amount of land held in trust for newly recognized and restored tribes and an identification of landless tribes.

BLM's program for issuing Indian allotments on public lands is no longer viable because generally no currently available lands qualify for allotment; and therefore, the program does not offer a reasonable opportunity of providing benefits for those applying for allotments. Specifically, the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, the land management plans developed under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, and other federal actions have withdrawn nearly all public land in the United States from availability for allotment. In addition, the public land that has been classified for disposal is not suitable for Indian allotments because the land cannot support families as required by the allotment program, according to BLM officials and documents. The public land available for allotment that could support a family has generally been awarded over the past 120 years. Despite the lack of land available for release, BLM estimates that it receives an average of one to five allotment applications per year. For the 22 allotment applications we reviewed, BLM denied 18, approved 2, and 2 were withdrawn by the applicants. In addition, BLM officials could not recall any approvals for allotments during the past 20 years other than the two approvals in Arizona in 1990, more than 15 years ago. Interior continues to bear the administrative burden of processing these Indian allotment applications even though applicants have little chance of approval. Continuing to issue Indian allotments also runs counter to the federal government's actions since 1983 to consolidate Indian land holdings.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In their February 20, 2007 response to our correspondence, the Assistant Secretary for Lands and Minerals Management of the Department of the Interior reaffirmed the Department's and the Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) concurrence with our findings and recommendation and stated that Interior would develop a proposal for the Congress to repeal section 4 of the 1887 General Allotment Act. More recently, BLM was advised by the Department of the Interior to place the implementation of the recommendation on hold until further consultation could be carried out since the proposed legislation would likely be controversial among some of BLM's stakeholders. On June 22, 2011, Interior confirmed that it would not be implementing this recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Interior should develop a proposal for the Congress to repeal section 4 of the 1887 General Allotment Act, which provides BLM the authority to issue Indian allotments on public lands.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior


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