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The Dawes Act: How Congress tried to destroy Indian reservations

How would you feel if the government confiscated your land, sold it to someone else, and tried to force you to change your way of life, all the while telling you it’s for your own good? That’s what Congress did to Indian tribes 125 years ago today, with devastating results, when it passed the Dawes Act.

During the 1800s, white settlers moved west by the tens of thousands, and the US cavalry went with them, battling Indian tribes along the way. One by one, tribes were forced to relinquish their homelands (on which they had lived for centuries) and relocate to reservations, often hundreds of miles away. By the late 1800s, some three hundred reservations had been created.

The purpose of the reservation system was, for the most part, to remove land from the Indians and to separate the Indians from the settlers. Reservations were usually created on lands not (yet) coveted by non-Indians. By the late 1800s, however, settlers were nearly everywhere, and Congress needed to develop a new strategy to prevent further bloodshed.

The government decided that instead of separating Indians from white society, Indians should be assimilated into white society. Assimilation of the Indians and the destruction of their reservations became the new federal goal.

Two very different social forces helped shaped this new policy: greed and humanitarianism. Many whites wanted Indian land and knew that they would have an easier time obtaining it if Indian tribes disappeared. This greed prompted Congress to pass the Dawes Act, also known as the General Allotment Act, in February 1887. The Dawes Act was also favored by many non-Indian social reformers who were aware that Indians were suffering unmercifully under the government’s existing reservation policies, and they sincerely believed that the best way to help Indians overcome their plight and their poverty was by encouraging assimilation. Although their motives differed, both groups pressured Congress to pass the Dawes Act. The objectives of the Act, as the US Supreme Court has noted, “were simple and clear cut: to extinguish tribal sovereignty, erase reservation boundaries, and force the assimilation of Indians into the society at large.” Indian tribes had no say in the matter and were not even consulted.

Chiefs at Verde Reservation, Arizona. Source: NYPL Labs Stereogranimator.

Most Indian tribes had no concept of private land ownership. Rather, land was communally owned and everyone worked together to gather what they could from the land and shared its bounty. In order to compel assimilation of the Indians, a scheme was developed that would undermine Indian life and culture at its core: individual Indians would be forced to own land for private use. Indians would be converted into capitalists.

To accomplish the new policy of assimilation, the Dawes Act authorized the President of the United States to divide communally-held tribal lands into separate parcels (“allotments”). Each tribal member was to be assigned an allotment and, after a twenty-five-year “trust” period, would be issued a deed to it, allowing the owner to sell it. Once the allotments were issued, the remaining tribal land (the “surplus” land) would be sold to non-Indian farmers and ranchers. Congress hoped that by allowing non-Indians to live on Indian reservations, the goals of the settlers and those of the humanitarian social reformers could both be satisfied: land would become available for non-Indian settlement within Indian reservations, and Indian poverty would be eliminated once Indians accepted the Anglo-American concept of private ownership and saw and emulated the farming and ranching habits of their new neighbors. “Within a generation or two, it was thought, the tribes would dissolve, their reservations would disappear, and individual Indians would be absorbed into the larger community of white settlers.”

The first goal — opening large portions of Indian reservations to white settlement — was a huge success. During the next fifty years, nearly two-thirds of the 150 million acres of land that Indian tribes owned in 1887 was sold to non-Indians. The second goal, however, was a dismal failure. Rather than assist Indians improve their lives and overcome poverty, the General Allotment Act made their condition worse. For one thing, many allotments were unsuitable for small-scale agriculture, and even those that were suitable required money for the purchase of equipment, cattle, or seeds that few Indians had. Moreover, many Indians didn’t want to become farmers and ranchers, and viewed such a lifestyle as distasteful. It simply was naïve and unrealistic — if not callous and racist — to think that Indian life would be improved by a method that forcibly confiscated tribal land and allowed outsiders to live on Indian reservations.

Congress passed a law in 1934 that ended the allotment process, and no further parcels of land were allotted to Indians. But the damage had been done. Indeed, today, more non-Indians live on some Indian reservations than Indians, and Indian life has been changed dramatically. The 125th anniversary of the Dawes Act is not, for Indians, a cause for celebration.

Headline image credit: Map of Indian Territory (Oklahoma), 1885. National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the General Land Office, Record Group 49.

Recent Comments

  1. Jamie

    Great article, Mr. Pevar, with a thoughtful discussion of both the historical implications and today’s ramifications of the Dawes Act.

  2. Stephen Pevar

    Thanks, Jamie. Moreover, the Dawes Act is just one of many anti-Indian laws that Congress has passed, although Congress is largely supportive of Indian tribes these days.

  3. Elizabeth Lone Eagle

    You’re non-Indian credentials & service to RST(my tribe) acknowledged… I vehemently disagree with you regarding Congressional support of our tribes today. US termination policies of the 1800’s are still very much alive & well though they have been well shrouded since then. This will NOT change until there is a fundamental shift in the federal psyche that unequivocally recognizes and makes efforts to support and enforce the inherent sovereignty of Indigenous Nations.

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  5. […] late 1800s brought about the Dawes (General Allotment) Act which effectively stole more lands previously granted to tribes for the purpose of settling, […]

  6. […] an attempt to break up tribal culture and unity, the Dawes Act of 1887 forced American Indians to abandon communal property for individual family-based farms. At the same time, […]

  7. Randolph Rowe

    Hello! I have been searching for any information I could find about my great grandfather listed on page 250 of the 1896 Dawes Applications. Name Walker, James M Choc #946. Is there anyway to find out anything about James? He was on Choctaw land in Bibb Co. Alabama. Was he Choctaw? Any help greatly appreciated.

  8. Brenda Nero

    South Africa changed the name to “homelands.”

  9. Carla

    Now we have a new crisis in Indian Country. There are literally thousands of individual Native Americans who are DISENROLLED by their own Tribal leaders. Only to find out that there’s no legal recourse for them when their rights are violated. Very sad they lose their connection to what their heritage.

  10. Daniel R Reed

    This is how my dad’s side of the family ended up in Oklahoma. My Great – Great Grandmother lived in N. Fla, got moved to Oklahoma.

  11. Bernie

    White Immigrants were were brought across the Oceans as they were already Criminal thieves and drunks in their European towns and their government thought it be cheaper to cast them over seases then build jails.We Indians have live with European Criminals.

  12. Matthew kellor

    Truly a sad moment in history as Natives were given the worst land nobody wanted? “Good lord willing and them Creeks don’t rise” was born during the Creek War. The Cherokee helped defeat them and promised half the bounty! Unfortunately, it was a lie. After General Jackson became president, white Americans did not like Christian people working for Indian savages? The Trail of Tears sent Cherokees to Indian Country- Oklahoma. A Choctaw word that means “redman”.

  13. […] Dawes Allotment ( Please see Curtis Act) in Oklahoma. The Dawes Act was really an attack on tribal sovereignty but, that’s another whole another blog post. As,I started to tell my great aunt of my finding […]

  14. […] property, allotting land parcels to Indian heads of family”, the Dawes Act was one of the most destructive policies towards tribes ever to come from the federal […]

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