“The Effect of Land Allotment on Native American Households During the Assimilation Era”
Abstract: In the early twentieth century, the U.S. government broke up millions of acres of communally owned reservation lands and allotted them to individual Native American households. Households initially received land allotments with limited property rights (‘in trust’), and were incentivized to prove themselves “competent” in order to obtain full legal title (‘fee simple’) after a set period. Indian allotment thus had elements of a conditional transfer program aimed at assimilation. The policy was ended suddenly in 1934, locking in-trust land into its status in perpetuity. We link land allotment information to the universe of Native American households in the 1940 U.S. Census. We exploit quasi-random variation in being allotted as well as in securing the allotment in fee simple. Obtaining an allotment significantly increased the likelihood of living on a farm but not of working as a farmer, indicating that allottees leased out their land. Allotments also impacted wages and occupational rank. Surprisingly, allotment most significantly impacted educational attainment. We interpret education as a way of signalling “competency” to government agents. Obtaining the land in fee simple was associated with decreased likelihood of living on a farm and owning one’s home, evidence that many allottees sold their land once they were deemed competent and obtained title. The fee-simple effects were more pronounced within tribes whose ancestral tribal norms emphasized private over communal property, indicating a cultural determinant in how the wealth transfer was utilized. Consistent with this, households in tribes with traditions of private property also engaged in more signalling of their assimilation.