Contextualizing the Losses of Allotment Through Literature
23 Pages Posted: 12 Feb 2007 Last revised: 22 Mar 2012
In this article, the Author undertakes a law and literature approach to a major Indian law problem: understanding the losses of allotment. Allotment was a mid 19th - early 20th century federal legislative program to take large tracts of land owned by Indian tribes, allocate smaller parcels to individual Indians, and sell off the rest to non-Indians. The idea was that Indians would abandon traditional patterns of subsistence to become American-style farmers, and great tracts of land would be freed up for the advance of white settlement. A key component of the federal government's larger project of assimilating Indians into mainstream society, allotment was devastating for Indian people who suffered incredible losses of land, economic livelihood, culture, and everything else that mattered. But the Supreme Court's caselaw on allotment might make you think otherwise. Indeed Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock (1903) characterizes allotment as a policy that simply changed the manner in which tribes owned their real property and did not cause any losses at all.
There are, of course, many ways to develop a fuller legal picture of the losses tribal people suffered during allotment, including historical and empirical research. But this article argues that fiction also has something to offer. Accordingly it argues that two novels by the Turtle Mountain Chippewa author Louise Erdrich can serve to contextualize the losses suffered by Indian people during allotment. While tribal people clearly lost a lot of land, Erdrich helps us understand how allotment brought about losses in socio-economic, familial, spiritual, and other realms of tribal life. And even though she is writing about fictional Ojibwe people and not the real Kiowa and Comanches involved in Lone Wolf, Erdrich raises important, relevant questions about allotment. Inspiring lawyers to contemplate these questions - completely ignored by Lone Wolf - can enhance both understanding of the case and contemporary advocacy to redress the losses of allotment today.
Keywords: Indian law, law and literature, property, allotment, context
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