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Fractionation of Indian lands continues to grow

The co-ownership of a parcel of land, or land fractionation, on a dozen Indian reservations has doubled from 1992 to 2010. That’s according to a recent study which compared 2010 statistics on land fractionation to a government study from 1992, the only publicly available study of fractionation.

Fractionation happens when several heirs inherit undivided interests in the same allotment of land. Over generations, allotments can end up being shared between dozens of owners.  

On the Wind River Indian Reservation, one tract of land has over 900 owners. The number of tracts with over 300 Indian owners went from just 1 in 1992 to 64 in 2010. The study shows that overall, the size of land parcels on Wind River decreased and the total number of tracts managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs grew nearly 20%.

Jake Russ, a graduate student at George Mason University, who worked on the paper, says Wind River’s fractionation rate was average.

“It definitely depends on the demographics of the reservation,” says Russ. “As the population ages, and if there’s any kind of differences in the rate at which people are passing away, or if there’s systematic differences across the proportion of Indian on the reservation who write wills. That would seriously impact a change in fractionation.”  

Scholars see fractionation as a hindrance to economic development.  

“We have a couple of theories about how fractionation should be impacting economic activity on those reservations, and we expect those effects to be negative,” Russ says. “The sheer amount of bargaining costs that are increasing every time you add an additional owner to all of the lease negotiations or any kind of land use decisions, that’s just a huge issue.” 

The study found that the annual recordkeeping costs for just these 12 reservations increased fivefold in the period studied. The researchers estimate that for all reservations, recordkeeping costs are in excess of half a billion dollars. 

Russ says he plans to look at the economic impacts of fractionation and how recent efforts to consolidate land in Indian Country are affecting fractionation in future studies. 

Irina Zhorov is a reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. She earned her BA from the University of Pennsylvania and an MFA from the University of Wyoming. In between, she worked as a photographer and writer for Philadelphia-area and national publications. Her professional interests revolve around environmental and energy reporting and she's reported on mining issues from Wyoming, Mexico, and Bolivia. She's been supported by the Dick and Lynn Cheney Grant for International Study, the Eleanor K. Kambouris Grant, and the Social Justice Research Center Research Grant for her work on Bolivian mining and Uzbek alpinism. Her work has appeared on Voice of America, National Native News, and in Indian Country Today, among other publications.