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Thu Feb 8, 2024, 08:00 AM Feb 8

On This Day: Lands act takes effect, called one of most destructive for Native Americans in history - Feb. 8, 1887

(edited from Wikipedia)
Dawes Act

The Dawes Act of 1887, [which became effective on Feb. 8 of that year,] regulated land rights on tribal territories within the United States.

It authorized the President of the United States to subdivide Native American tribal communal landholdings into allotments for Native American heads of families and individuals. This would convert traditional systems of land tenure into a government-imposed system of private property by forcing Native Americans to "assume a capitalist and proprietary relationship with property" that did not previously exist in their cultures.

The act allowed tribes the option to sell the lands that remained after allotment to the federal government. Before private property could be dispensed, the government had to determine which Indians were eligible for allotments, which propelled an official search for a federal definition of "Indian-ness."

Although the act was passed in 1887, the federal government implemented the Dawes Act on a tribe-by-tribe basis thereafter. For example, in 1895, Congress passed the Hunter Act, which administered the Dawes Act among the Southern Ute. The nominal purpose of the act was to protect the property of the natives as well as to compel "their absorption into the American mainstream."

Native peoples who were deemed to be mixed-blood were granted U.S. citizenship, while others were "detribalized." Between 1887 and 1934, Native Americans ceded control of about 100 million acres of land or about "two-thirds of the land base they held in 1887" as a result of the act. The loss of land ownership and the break-up of traditional leadership of tribes produced potentially negative cultural and social effects that have since prompted some scholars to consider the act as one of the most destructive U.S. policies for Native Americans in history.

The "Five Civilized Tribes" (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee, and Seminole) in Indian Territory were initially exempt from the Dawes Act. The Dawes Commission was established in 1893 as a delegation to register members of tribes for allotment of lands. They came to define tribal belonging in terms of blood-quantum. But, because there was no method of determining precise bloodlines, commission members often assigned "full-blood status" to Native Americans who were perceived as "poorly-assimilated" or "legally incompetent," and "mixed-blood status" to Native Americans who "most resembled whites," regardless of how they identified culturally.

The Curtis Act of 1898 extended the provisions of the Dawes Act to the "Five Civilized Tribes," required the abolition of their governments and dissolution of tribal courts, allotment of communal lands to individuals registered as tribal members, and sale of lands declared surplus. This law was "an outgrowth of the land rush of 1889, and completed the extinction of Indian land claims in the territory. This violated the promise of the United States that the Indian territory would remain Indian land in perpetuity," completed the obliteration of tribal land titles in Indian Territory, and prepared for admission of the territory land to the Union as the state of Oklahoma.

During the Great Depression, the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration passed the US Indian Reorganization Act (also known as the Wheeler-Howard Law) on June 18, 1934. It prohibited any further land allotment and created a "New Deal" for Native Americans, which renewed their rights to reorganize and form self-governments in order to "rebuild an adequate land base."

The "Indian Problem"

During the early 1800s, the United States federal government attempted to address what it referred to as the "Indian Problem." Numerous European immigrants were settling on the eastern border of the Indian territories (where most of the Native American tribes had been relocated). Conflicts between the groups increased as they competed for resources and operated according to different cultural systems.

Searching for a quick solution to their problem, Commissioner of Indian Affairs William Medill proposed establishing "colonies" or "reservations" that would be exclusively for the natives, similar to those which some native tribes had created for themselves in the east. It was a form of relocation whereby the US government would offer a transfer of the natives from current locations to areas in the region beyond the Mississippi River. This would enable settlement by European Americans in the Southeast, where there was a growing demand for access to new lands.

The new policy intended to concentrate Native Americans in areas away from the new settlers. During the later nineteenth century, Native American tribes resisted the imposition of the reservation system and engaged with the United States Army (in what were called the Indian Wars in the West) for decades. Finally defeated by the US military force and continuing waves of new settlers, the tribes negotiated agreements to resettle on reservations. Native Americans ended up with a total of over 155 million acres of land, ranging from arid deserts to prime agricultural land.

The Reservation system, while compulsory for Native Americans, allotted each tribe a claim to their new lands, protection over their territories, and the right to govern themselves. With the US Senate to be involved only for negotiation and ratification of treaties, the Native Americans adjusted their ways of life and tried to maintain their traditions. 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. The tribe was viewed as a highly cohesive group, led by a hereditary, chosen chief, who exercised power and influence among the members of the tribe by aging traditions.

By the end of the 1880s, some US stakeholders felt that the assimilation of Native Americans into American culture was top priority and was needed for the peoples' very survival. This was the belief among people who "admired" them, as well as people who thought they needed to leave behind their tribal landholding, reservations, traditions and ultimately their Indian identities. Senator Henry Dawes launched a campaign to "rid the nation of tribalism through the virtues of private property, allotting land parcels to Indian heads of family."

On February 8, 1887, the Dawes Allotment Act was signed into law by President Grover Cleveland. Responsible for enacting the allotment of the tribal reservations into plots of land for individual households, the Dawes Act was intended by reformers to achieve six goals:

- 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
- opening the remainder of the land to White settlers for profit.

The Act facilitated assimilation; they would become more "Americanized" as the government allotted the reservations and the Indians adapted to subsistence farming, the primary model at the time.

Native Americans held specific ideologies pertaining to tribal land. Some natives began to adapt to the culture. They adopted the values of the dominant society and saw land as real estate to be bought and developed; they learned how to use their land effectively in order to become prosperous farmers. As they were inducted as citizens of the country, they would shed those of their discourses and ideologies that were presumed to be uncivilized, and exchange them for ones that allowed them to become industrious self-supporting citizens, and finally rid themselves of their need for government supervision.

Identity and detribalization

The effects of the Dawes Act were destructive on Native American sovereignty, culture, and identity since it empowered the U.S. government to:

- legally preempt the sovereign right of Indians to define themselves
- implement the specious notion of blood-quantum as the legal criteria for defining Indians
- institutionalize divisions between "full-bloods" and "mixed-bloods"
- "detribalize" a sizeable segment of the Indian population
- legally appropriate vast tracts of Indian land

The federal government initially viewed the Dawes Act as such a successful democratic experiment that they decided to further explore the use of blood-quantum laws and the notion of federal recognition as the qualifying means for "dispensing other resources and services such as health care and educational funding" to Native Americans long after its passage.

Under Dawes, land parcels were dispersed in accordance with perceived blood quanta. Indigenous people labeled "full-blooded" were allocated "relatively small parcels of land deeded with trust patents over which the government retained complete control for a minimum of twenty-five years." Those who were labeled "mixed-blood" were "deeded larger and better tracts of land, with 'patents in fee simple' (complete control), but were also forced to accept U.S. citizenship and relinquish tribal status."

Additionally, Native Americans who did not "meet the established criteria" as being either "full-blood" or "mixed-blood" were effectively "detribalized," being "deposed of their American Indian identity and displaced from their homelands, discarded into the nebula of American otherness." While the Dawes Act is "typically recognized" as the "primary instigation of divisions between tribal and detribalized Indians," the history of detribalization in the United States "actually precedes Dawes."

Land loss

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.

Most allottees given land on the Great Plains were not successful at achieving economic viability via farming. Division of land among heirs upon the allottees' deaths quickly led to 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 Native Americans. Over the 47 years of the Act's life, Native Americans lost about 90 million acres of treaty land, or about two-thirds of the 1887 land base. About 90,000 Native Americans were made landless.

Culture and gender roles

The Dawes Act compelled Native Americans to adopt European American culture by prohibiting Indigenous cultural practices and encouraging settler cultural practices and ideologies into Native American families and children. By transferring communally-owned Native land into private property, the Office of Indian Affairs (OIA) "hoped to transform Native Americans into yeoman farmers and farm wives through the assignment of individual land holdings known as allotments."

In an attempt to fulfill this objective, the Dawes Act "outlawed Native American culture and established a code of Indian offenses regulating individual behavior according to Euro-American norms of conduct." Any violations of this code were to be "tried in a Court of Indian Offenses on each reservation." Included with the Dawes Act were "funds to instruct Native Americans in Euro-American patterns of thought and behavior through Indian Service schools."

By dividing reservation lands into privately owned parcels, legislators hoped to complete the assimilation process by forcing Native Americans to adopt individual households, and strengthen the nuclear family and values of economic dependency strictly within this small household unit. The Dawes Act was thus implemented to destroy "native cultural patterns." As a result, "they promoted Christian marriages among indigenous people, forced families to regroup under male heads (a tactic often enforced by renaming), and trained men in wage-earning occupations while encouraging women to support them at home through domestic activities."

Reduction of sovereignty

The allotted lands of Native Americans determined to be incompetent by the Secretary of the Interior were automatically leased out by the federal government. It was known by the Department of Interior that virtually 95% of fee patented land would eventually be sold to whites.


For nearly one hundred years, the consequences of federal Indian allotments have developed into the problem of fractionation. As original allottees die, their heirs receive equal, undivided interests in the allottees' lands. In successive generations, smaller undivided interests descend to the next generation. Fractionated interests in individual Native American allotted land continue to expand exponentially with each new generation.

Fractionation has become significantly worse. [...] in some cases the land is so highly fractionated that it can never be made productive. With such small ownership interests, it is nearly impossible to obtain the level of consent necessary to lease the land. In addition, to manage highly fractionated parcels of land, the government spends more money probating estates, maintaining title records, leasing the land, and attempting to manage and distribute tiny amounts of income to individual owners than is received in income from the land. In many cases, the costs associated with managing these lands can be significantly more than the value of the underlying asset.


Angie Debo's, And Still the Waters Run: The Betrayal of the Five Civilized Tribes (1940), claimed the allotment policy of the Dawes Act (as later extended to apply to the Five Civilized Tribes through the Dawes Commission and the Curtis Act of 1898) was systematically manipulated to deprive the Native Americans of their lands and resources. Ellen Fitzpatrick claimed that 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."


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