Complexity's Shadow: American Indian Property, Sovereignty, and the Future

Jessica A. Shoemaker

University of Nebraska - College of Law

May 16, 2016

Michigan Law Review, Forthcoming

This article offers a new perspective on the challenges of the modern American Indian land tenure system. While some property theorists have renewed focus on isolated aspects of Indian land tenure, including the historic inequities of colonial takings of Indian lands, this article argues that the complexity of today’s federally imposed reservation property system does much the same colonizing work that historic Indian land policies — from allotment to removal to termination — did overtly. But now these inequities are largely shadowed by the daunting complexity of the whole over-arching structure.

This article introduces a new taxonomy of complexity in American Indian land tenure and explores particularly how the recent trend of hyper-categorizing property and sovereignty interests into ever-more granular and interacting jurisdictional variables has exacerbated development and self-governance challenges in Indian Country. The entirety of this structural complexity serves no adequate purpose for Indian landowners or Indian nations and instead creates perverse incentives to grow the federal oversight role. Complexity begets more complexity, and this has created a self-perpetuating and inefficient cycle of federal control. However, stepping back and reviewing Indian land tenure as a system — a whole complex, dynamic, and ultimately adaptable system — actually introduces new and potentially fruitful management techniques borrowed from social and ecological sciences. Top-down Indian land reforms have consistently intensified complexity’s costs. This article explores how emphasizing grassroots experimentation and local flexibility instead can create critical space for reservation-by-reservation property system transformations into the future.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 68

Keywords: American Indian, Native American, property, land tenure, land use, complexity, complex adaptive systems, administrative law, sovereignty, indigenous, fractionation, alienation, property institutions

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Date posted: May 17, 2016 ; Last revised: July 9, 2016

Suggested Citation

Shoemaker, Jessica A., Complexity's Shadow: American Indian Property, Sovereignty, and the Future (May 16, 2016). Michigan Law Review, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2780645

Contact Information

Jessica A. Shoemaker (Contact Author)
University of Nebraska - College of Law ( email )
103 McCollum Hall
P.O. Box 830902
Lincoln, NE 68583-0902
United States
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