Dawes Act

Dawes Act

The Dawes Act, adopted by Congress in 1887, authorized the President of the United States to survey Indian tribal land and divide the land into allotments for individual Indians. The Act was named for its sponsor, Senator Henry L. Dawes of Massachusetts. The Dawes Act was amended in 1891 and again in 1906 by the Burke Act. The stated objective of the Dawes Act was to stimulate assimilation of Indians into American society. Individual ownership of land was seen as an essential step. The act also provided that the government would purchase Indian land excess to that needed for allotment and open it up for settlement by non-Indians.

The impact on Indians of the Dawes Act was negative. The act "was the culmination of American attempts to destroy tribes and their governments and to open Indian lands to settlement by non-Indians and to development by railroads."[1] Land owned by Indians decreased from 138 million acres (560,000 km2) in 1887 to 48 million acres (190,000 km2) in 1934.[2]

The Dawes Commission, set up under an Indian Office appropriation bill in 1893, was created, not to administer the Dawes Act, but to attempt to get the tribes excluded under the Dawes Act to agree to the allotment plan. It was this commission that registered the members of the Five Civilized Tribes. The Curtis Act of 1908 completed the process of destroying tribal governments by abolishing tribal jurisdiction of Indian land. In 1934, Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act which ended allotment and created a "New Deal" for Indians.[2]


The “Indian Problem”

It was during the 1850s when the United States federal government's attempt to grasp control over the Native Americans reached an entirely new level of severity. With the arrival of a plentiful group of new European settlers reaching the eastern border, a place where multitudes of Native Americans tribes were currently situated, the government grew fearful as they believed that they were in the midst of facing an “Indian problem” as the racial societies were unable to coexist within the same communities. Searching for a quick and accessible solution to their problem, William Medill the commissioner of Indian Affairs, pushed forth the idea of establishing “colonies” or “reservations” that would be exclusive to the natives, mimicking those in which the natives had created for themselves in the east. [3] A form of removal where they would uproot the natives from their current positions and push them westward to a region beyond the Mississippi River in turn opening up new placement for the new white settlers and at the same time protecting them from the corrupt “evil” ways of the subordinate natives. [4]

This new policy responsible for concentrating the tribesman away from the migrating settlers, caused a great deal of suffering amongst the natives as they were constantly being budged around, and driven away to areas which were less desirable to the white settlers. This suffering led to a unanimous feeling of disapproval and non-cooperation amongst the native population, towards the implementation of the new reservation system and as a response the Native Indians made the decision to rebel through the use of violence. Resulting in a string of on and off wars throughout the following decades, until, through a weakening native power, a much stronger American military force, and negotiated agreements many natives, tired of fighting a losing battle gave up and relocated to the reservations. [5] Leaving the Native Americans with a total of over 155 million acres (630,000 km2) of land ranging from arid deserts to prime agricultural land. [6]

The Reservation system, though not the ideal lifestyle that the natives originally desired was one that still allotted each tribe to have a significant amount of freedom. Each tribe had a claim to their new tribal lands, protection over their territories and the right to govern themselves, with the senate being able to intervene solely through the negotiation of treaties, they continued on following their traditions within their separate societies. [7] The traditional tribal organization, a defining characteristic of Native Americans as a social unit became apparent to the non-native communities of the United States and created a mixed stir of emotions. The tribe was viewed as a highly cohesive group, led by a hereditarily chosen chief, who exercised power and influence amongst the members of the tribe through the usage of aging traditions. [8] Seen as a strong tight knit society led by powerhouse men who were opposed to any change that weakened their positions, many white Americans feared Indian tribes and sought out immediate reformation. Their objection to the “Euroamerican” lifestyle that was of social norm in the United States at the time, was seen as both unacceptable and uncivilized; and by the end of the 1880s a general consensus seemed to arise amongst the country concerning the native’s habits. Government and military officials, congressional leaders and Christian reformers alike all formed the belief that the assimilation of Native Americans into white American culture was top priority, it was the time for them to leave behind their tribal landholding, reservations, traditions and ultimately their Indian identity. [9] They wanted nothing more than to rid themselves forever of their “Indian problem,” to relieve themselves of their impoverished, uncivilized counterparts and replace them with independent Americanized Christian agricultural society, and so on February 8 1887, the Dawes Allotment Act was created.

Responsible for enacting the division of the American native reserves, the Dawes Act was created by reformers in hope of achieving at least six accomplishments: the breaking up of tribes as a social unit, encouraging individual initiatives, furthering the progress of native farmers, reducing the cost of native administration, securing parts of the reservations as Indian land, and finally opening the remainder of the land to white settlers for profit. [10] The compulsory Act forced natives to succumb to their evitable fate; they would undergo severe attempts to become “Euro-Americanized” as the government allotted their reservations with or without their consent. Native Americans held very specific ideologies pertaining to their land, to them the land and earth were things to be valued and cared for, for they represented all things that produced and sustained life, it embodied their existence, identity and created an environment of belonging. [11] In opposition to their white counterparts, they did not see it from an economic standpoint. However it was believed that in order to ensure their survival the natives would have to succumb to embrace these beliefs and surrender to the forces of progression. They were to adopt the values of the dominant society and see land as real estate to be bought and developed; they were to learn how to use their land effectively in order to become prosperous farmers. [12] As they were inducted as citizens of the country they would shed their uncivilized discourses and ideologies, and exchange them for ones that allowed them to become industrious self-supporting citizens, and finally rid themselves of their “need” for government supervision. [13]

Provisions of the Dawes Act

The important provisions of the Dawes act were: (1) A head of family would receive a grant of 160 acres (0.65 km2), a single person or orphan under 18 years of age would receive a grant of 80 acres (320,000 m2), and persons under the age of 18 would receive 40 acres (160,000 m2) each; (2) the allotments would be held in trust by the U.S. Government for 25 years; (3) Eligible Indians had four years to select their land; afterwards the selection would be made for them by the Secretary of the Interior; (4) U.S. citizenship would be conferred upon allotees who abandoned their tribes and adopted "the habits of civilized life."[14]

The Dawes Act did not apply, for a variety of reasons, to the Five Civilized Tribes, the Osage, Miami, Peoria, the Sac and Fox in Oklahoma, and the Seneca in New York State. Allotment of the lands of these tribes would subsequently be mandated by the Act of 1891 which amplified the provisions of the Dawes Act.[15]


Senator Henry M. Teller of Colorado was one of the most outspoken opponents of allotment. In 1881, he said that allotment was a policy "to despoil the Indians of their lands and to make them vagabonds on the face of the earth." Teller also said, "the real aim [of allotment] was "to get at the Indian lands and open them up to settlement. The provisions for the apparent benefit of the Indians are but the pretext to get at his lands and occupy them....If this were done in the name of Greed, it would be bad enough; but to do it in the name of Humanity...is infinitely worse."[16]

The amount of land in native hands rapidly depleted from some 150 million acres (610,000 km2) to a small 78 million acres (320,000 km2) by 1900, as the remainder of the land once allotted to appointed natives was declared surplus and sold to non-native settlers as well as railroad and other large corporations, and was also converted into federal parks and military compounds. [17] Quickly changing the concern from private native landownership to satisfying the white settlers demand for larger portions of land

By dividing reservation lands into privately-owned parcels, legislators hoped to complete the assimilation process by forcing the deterioration of the communal lifestyle of the Native societies and imposing Western-oriented values of strengthening the nuclear family and values of economic dependency strictly within this small household unit.[18]

The land granted to most allottees was not sufficient for economic viability, and division of land between heirs upon the allottees' deaths resulted in land fractionalization. Most allotment land, which could be sold after a statutory period of 25 years, was eventually sold to non-Native buyers at bargain prices. Additionally, land deemed to be "surplus" beyond what was needed for allotment was opened to white settlers, though the profits from the sales of these lands were often invested in programs meant to aid the American Indians. Native Americans lost, over the 47 years of the Act's life, about 90 million acres (360,000 km²) of treaty land, or about two-thirds of the 1887 land base. About 90,000 Native Americans were made landless.[19]

In 1906 the Burke Act (also known as the forced patenting act) further amended the GAA to give the Secretary of the Interior the power to issue allotees a patent in fee simple to people classified ‘competent and capable.’ The criteria for this determination is unclear but meant that allotees deemed ‘competent’ by the Secretary of the Interior would have their land taken out of trust status, subject to taxation, and could be sold by the allottee. The allotted lands of Indians determined to be incompetent by the Secretary of the Interior were automatically leased out by the Federal Government.[20] The act reads:

...the Secretary of the Interior may, in his discretion, and he is hereby authorized, whenever he shall be satisfied that any Indian allottee is competent and capable of managing his or her affairs at any time to cause to be issued to such allottee a patent in fee simple, and thereafter all restrictions as to sale, encumbrance, or taxation of said land shall be removed.

The use of competence opens up the categorization, making it much more subjective and thus increasing the exclusionary power of the Secretary of Interior. Although this act gives power to the allottee decide whether to keep or sell the land, provided the harsh economic reality of the time, lack of access to credit and markets, liquidation of Indian lands was almost inevitable. It was known by the department of interior that virtually 95% of fee patented land would eventually be sold to whites.[21]

The allotment policy depleted the land base, ending hunting as a means of subsistence. According to Victorian ideals, the men were forced into the fields to take on what had traditionally been the woman's role and the women were relegated to the domestic sphere.[citation needed] This Act imposed a patrilineal nuclear household onto many matrilineal Native societies. Native gender roles and relations quickly changed with this policy since communal living shaped the social order of Native communities. Women were no longer the caretakers of the land and they were no longer valued in the public political sphere. Even in the home, the Native woman was dependent on her husband. Before allotment, women divorced easily and had important political and social status, as they were usually the center of their kin network. To receive the full 160 acres (0.65 km2), women had to be officially married.[citation needed]

In 1926, Secretary of the Interior Hubert Work commissioned a study of federal administration of Indian policy and the condition of Indian people. Completed in 1936, The Problem of Indian Administration – commonly known as the Meriam Report after the study's director, Lewis Meriam – documented fraud and misappropriation by government agents. In particular, the Meriam Report found that the General Allotment Act had been used to illegally deprive Native Americans of their land rights. After considerable debate, Congress terminated the allotment process under the Dawes Act by enacting the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 ("Wheeler-Howard Act"). However, the allotment process in Alaska under the separate Alaska Native Allotment Act continued until its revocation in 1993 by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

Despite termination of the allotment process in 1934, effects of the General Allotment Act continue into the present. For example, one provision of the Act was the establishment of a trust fund, administered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, to collect and distribute revenues from oil, mineral, timber, and grazing leases on Native American lands. The BIA's alleged improper management of the trust fund resulted in litigation, in particular the in case Cobell v. Kempthorne (settled in 2009 for $3.4 billion), to force a proper accounting of revenues.

Contemporary interpretations

Angie Debo's landmark work, And Still the Waters Run: The Betrayal of the Five Civilized Tribes (completed 1936, published 1940), detailed how the allotment policy of the Dawes Act (as later extended to apply to the Five Civilized Tribes through such devices as the Dawes Commission and the Curtis Act of 1898) was systematically manipulated to deprive the Native Americans of their lands and resources.[22] In the words of historian Ellen Fitzpatrick, Debo's book "advanced a crushing analysis of the corruption, moral depravity, and criminal activity that underlay white administration and execution of the allotment policy."[23]

See also


  1. ^ Kidwell, Clara Sue. "Allotment." Oklahoma Historical Society's Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture. (retrieved 29 December 2009)
  2. ^ a b Gunn, Steven J. Major Acts of Congress:Indian General Allotment Act (Dawes Act) (1887). accessed 21 May 2011
  3. ^ Sandweiss, Martha A., Carol A. O’ Connor, and Clyde A. Milner II. The Oxford History of The American West. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. p. 174. Print.
  4. ^ McDonnell, Janet. The Dispossesion of the American Indian. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991. p. 1. Print.
  5. ^ Carlson, Leonard A. Indians, Bureaucrats, and Land. Westport, Connecticut: 1981. p. 6. Print.
  6. ^ Carlson, Leonard A. Indians, Bureaucrats, and Land. Westport, Connecticut: 1981. p. 1. Print.
  7. ^ Carlson, Leonard A. Indians, Bureaucrats, and Land. Westport, Connecticut: 1981. p. 5. Print.
  8. ^ Carlson, Leonard A. Indians, Bureaucrats, and Land. Westport, Connecticut: 1981. p. 79-80. Print.
  9. ^ Sandweiss, Martha A., Carol A. O’ Connor, and Clyde A. Milner II. The Oxford History of The American West. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. p. 174. Print.
  10. ^ Carlson, Leonard A. Indians, Bureaucrats, and Land. Westport, Connecticut: 1981. p. 79. Print.
  11. ^ McDonnell, Janet. The Dispossesion of the American Indian. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991. p. 1. Print.
  12. ^ McDonnell, Janet. The Dispossesion of the American Indian. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991. p. 2. Print.
  13. ^ McDonnell, Janet. The Dispossesion of the American Indian. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991. p. 3. Print.
  14. ^ Otis, D.S. The Dawes Act and the Allotment of Indian Lands. Norman: U of OK Press, 1973, pp. 5-6. Originally published in 1934.
  15. ^ Otis, pp. 177-188
  16. ^ Otis, pp. 18-19
  17. ^ Churchill, Ward. Struggle for Land Native North American Resistance to Genocide, Ecocide and Colonization. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2002. p. 48. Print.
  18. ^ Gibson, Arrell M. Gibson. "Indian Land Transfers." Handbook of North American Indians: History of Indian-White Relations, Volume 4. Wilcomb E. Washburn and William C. Sturtevant, eds. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1988. Pages 226–29
  19. ^ Case DS, Voluck DA (2002). Alaska Natives and American Laws (2nd ed. ed.). Fairbanks, AK: University of Alaska Press. pp. 104–5. ISBN 9781889963082. 
  20. ^ Bartecchi D (2007-02-19). "The History of "Competency" as a Tool to Control Native American Lands". Pine Ridge Project. http://villageearth.org/pages/Projects/Pine_Ridge/pineridgeblog/2007/02/history-of-competency-as-tool-to.html. Retrieved 2008-11-06. 
  21. ^ Robertson, 2002
  22. ^ Listing for And Still the Waters Run at Princeton University Press website (retrieved January 9, 2009).
  23. ^ Ellen Fitzpatrick, History's Memory: Writing America's Past, 1880-1980 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), ISBN 067401605X, p. 133, excerpt available online at Google Books.

Further reading

  • Debo, Angie. And Still the Waters Run: The Betrayal of the Five Civilized Tribes (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1940; new edition, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1984), ISBN 0691046158.
  • Olund, Eric N. (2002). “Public Domesticity during the Indian Reform Era; or, Mrs. Jackson is induced to go to Washington.” Gender, Place, and Culture 9: 153-166.
  • Stremlau, Rose. (2005). “To Domesticate and Civilize Wild Indians”: Allotment and the Campaign to Reform Indian Families, 1875-1887. Journal of Family History 30: 265-286.

External links

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