The 1887 law intended to assimilate Native Americans led to the loss of millions of acres of land. 

Overview

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

Background to the “Indian problem”

Although violent conflict had plagued relations between white settlers and Native American Indians from the very beginning of European colonization of the New world, such violence increased in the mid-nineteenth century as European settlers moved ever further west across the American continent. Most white Americans believed there was no way to live in peace and harmony with Native Americans, whom they regarded as “backwards” and “primitive.”
As a result of this widespread belief, the federal government created the reservation system in 1851 to provide land to Native Americans and thereby keep them off of the lands that European-Americans wished to settle. Many tribes resisted their confinement to the reservations, resulting in a series of conflicts between various Indian tribes and the US Army known as the Indian Wars. Ultimately, the Army subdued the Indians and forced them onto reservations, where they were allowed to govern themselves and maintain some of their traditions and culture.1^1
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 the Indians be “saved” from the fires of hell. The forced assimilation of Native Americans was thus justified as being better for the Indians themselves.
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.”2^2
Forty-Ninth Congress of the United States of America; At the Second Session,
Begun and held at the City of Washington on Monday, the sixth day of December, one thousand eight hundred and eight-six.
An Act to provide for the allotment of lands in severalty to Indians on the various reservations, and to extend the protection of the laws of the United States and the Territories over the Indians, and for other purposes.
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That in all cases where any tribe or band of Indians has been, or shall hereafter be, located upon any reservation created for their use, either by treaty stipulation or by virtue of an act of Congress or executive order setting apart the same for their use, the President of the United States be, and he hereby is, authorized, whenever in his opinion any reservation or any part thereof of such Indians is advantageous for agricultural and grazing purposes, to cause said reservation, or any part thereof, to be surveyed, or resurveyed if necessary, and to allot the lands in said reservation in severalty to any Indian located thereon in quantities as follows:
To each head of a family, one-quarter of a section;
To each single person over eighteen years of age, one-eighth of a section;
To each orphan child under eighteen years of age, one-eighth of a section; and
To each other single person under eighteen years now living, or who may be born prior to the date of the order of the President directing an allotment of the lands embraced in any reservation, one-sixteenth of a section . . .
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). These tribes had already adopted many elements of white European 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 these tribes 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. 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.3^3
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.4^4

What do you think?

Why do you think white Americans viewed Native American Indians 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?
Article written by Dr. Michelle Getchell. This article is licensed under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.
Notes
  1. See Ned Blackhawk, Violence over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006).
  2. For more on the Dawes Act, see D.S. Otis, The Dawes Act and the Allotment of Indian Lands (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1973).
  3. For more on the Five Civilized Tribes, see Grant Foreman, Indian Removal: The Emigration of the Five Civilized Tribes of Indians (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1972), and Kent Carter, The Dawes Commission and the Allotment of the Five Civilized Tribes, 1893-1914 (Orem, UT: Ancestry Publishing, 1999).
  4. See Graham D. Taylor, The New Deal and American Indian Tribalism: The Administration of the Indian Reorganization Act, 1934-45 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1980).
Attributions
Transcript of the Dawes Act courtesy National Archives, Our Documents, 2016.
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