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The Dawes Act

KC‑6.2.II.D (KC)
MIG (Theme)
Unit 6: Learning Objective B
The 1887 law intended to assimilate Native Americans led to the loss of millions of acres of land. 


  • The Dawes Act of 1887 authorized the federal government to break up tribal lands by partitioning them into individual plots. Only those Native Americans who accepted the individual allotments were allowed to become US citizens.
  • The objective of the Dawes Act was to assimilate Native Americans into mainstream US society by annihilating their cultural and social traditions.
  • As a result of the Dawes Act, over ninety million acres of tribal land were stripped from Native Americans and sold to non-natives.

Background to the “Indian problem”

Although violent conflict had plagued relations between white settlers and Native Americans from the very beginning of European colonization of the New world, such violence increased in the mid-nineteenth century as American settlers moved ever further west across the continent. Most white Americans believed they could not live in peace with Native Americans, whom they regarded as “primitive.”
As a result of this widespread belief, the US government created the reservation system in 1851 keep Native Americans off of lands that European-Americans wished to settle. Many indigenous people resisted their confinement to the reservations, resulting in a series of conflicts between Native Americans and the US Army known as the Indian Wars. Ultimately, the US Army subdued Native Americans and forced them onto reservations, where they were allowed to govern themselves and maintain some of their traditions and culture.start superscript, 1, end superscript
But as white Americans pushed ever westward, they came into conflict with Native Americans on their tribal lands. Many of these white settlers viewed the continued practice of native traditions as barbaric and intolerable. They believed that assimilation (being completely absorbed) into mainstream white American society was the only acceptable fate for Native Americans. This belief was often couched in religious terms; many white Christians argued that only by abandoning their spiritual traditions and accepting Christian dogma could Native Americans be “saved” from the fires of hell.
In the late nineteenth century, a political consensus formed around these ideas, and the result was the 1887 passage of the Dawes Act.

Provisions and effects of the Dawes Act

The Dawes Act of 1887, sometimes referred to as the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887 or the General Allotment Act, was signed into law on January 8, 1887, by US President Grover Cleveland. The act authorized the president to confiscate and redistribute tribal lands in the American West. It explicitly sought to destroy the social cohesion of Indian tribes and to thereby eliminate the remaining vestiges of Indian culture and society. Only by disavowing their own traditions, it was believed, could the Indians ever become truly “American.”squared
As a result of the Dawes Act, tribal lands were parceled out into individual plots. Only those Native Americans who accepted the individual plots of land were allowed to become US citizens. The remainder of the land was then sold off to white settlers.
Poster advertising "Indian Land for Sale" with a photograph of a Native American man wearing a war bonnet.
Advertisement for the sale of Native American land. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Amendments to the Dawes Act

Initially, the Dawes Act did not apply to the so-called “Five Civilized Tribes” (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole). They had already adopted many elements of American society and culture, which is why they were characterized as “civilized.” Moreover, they were protected by treaties that had guaranteed that their tribal lands would remain free of white settlers. However, after they had proven unwilling to voluntarily accept individual allotments of land, the Curtis Act of 1898 amended the Dawes Act to apply to the Five Civilized Tribes as well. Their tribal governments were obliterated, their tribal courts were destroyed, and over ninety million acres of their tribal lands were sold off to white Americans.cubed
During the Great Depression, the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt supported the US Indian Reorganization Act, which authorized a “New Deal” for Native American Indians, allowing them to organize and form their own tribal governments, and ending the land allotments created by Dawes Act.start superscript, 4, end superscript

What do you think?

Why do you think white Americans viewed Native Americans as such a threat?
Do you think the Dawes Act was intended to help or harm Native Americans?
What was the effect of the Dawes Act on Native American cultural beliefs and traditions?
What do you see as the primary difference between Native American and European American conceptions of land and ownership?

Want to join the conversation?

  • purple pi purple style avatar for user Pooja Chawla
    Can someone explain the difference between the Dawes Act and the Dawes Plan?
    (18 votes)
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  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Tovonn Smith
    How did the five civilized tribes react this this Dawes Act? A.K.A., (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole) tribes.
    (6 votes)
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    • starky tree style avatar for user inkyelixir
      Probably not very well! Imagine if you lived in Oklahoma peacefully with your tribe. Suddenly, a bunch of Caucasians come over and force you onto lands much, much smaller than your original home. Then, a few years later they take away your lands and you can only get them back if you throw away your family's traditions that have been passed down for millennia. You'd likely wish to retaliate on those people who were trying to tell you what to do.
      (16 votes)
  • primosaur ultimate style avatar for user Michael Fulcher
    The USA handled the Native Americans really bad. Why didn't they just let them stay on their reservations with their own government?
    (4 votes)
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    • mr pants orange style avatar for user Emil
      People are generally naturally afraid of others that are different than them, as they aren't sure how to approach them and such. The same thing happened with the enslavement of Africans; the Europeans and Americans saw them as different and figured that they were practically a different species. It was very immoral, but the Americans saw their ways as better and were sort of trying to help, though instead caused a lot of grief for the Natives. I hope this answered your question! :)
      (6 votes)
  • starky seedling style avatar for user Coleo
    About how many tribes were moved to these reservations? Not counting the Trail of Tears
    (3 votes)
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    • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Harriet Buchanan
      I'm white, but I can't believe the hubris of the Government or the settlers in believing their way of life and their religion would be better for Native Americans. I know how I'd feel if I was pushed out of my home and forced to go anywhere else and change my beliefs.
      (6 votes)
  • starky ultimate style avatar for user mud
    Did any Native Americans agree to move peacefully, or did they all put up a fight? Please answer.
    (2 votes)
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  • purple pi pink style avatar for user eshal.bina2012
    Did the Dawes act help Native Americans or harm Native Americans?
    (2 votes)
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    • area 52 yellow style avatar for user RohilC
      As a whole, it generally hurt Native Americans. The Dawes Act was an act created to divide and conquer the plains indians, and was also a coercion method to assimilate plains indians into American culture. In addition, this act also sold the remaining, much higher quality land to white settlers of the west, thus increasing the detriment against the plains indians.
      (3 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user 20swankap
    how did the Dawes acts c conflict with the Indians culture?
    (1 vote)
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    • leafers sapling style avatar for user Scout Finch
      They destroyed tribal government systems, and broke the Native American culture into pieces. The Native American culture was based on cooperation, and when the Federal Goverment divided the people, the cooperative system was broken. Hope that helps!
      (6 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Keke Romero
    How many tribes were sent to the reservation since then?
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user lillyblossom0
    Why dou think Congress believe that this act was fair to Native Americans
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user 2022veleze
    the Americans didnt view the Natives as civilized
    (1 vote)
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