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The reservation system

In the nineteenth century, Native Americans were confined to reservations to open up land for white settlers. 


  • The Indian reservation system was created to keep Native Americans off of lands that European Americans wished to settle.
  • The reservation system allowed indigenous people to govern themselves and to maintain some of their cultural and social traditions.
  • The Dawes Act of 1887 destroyed the reservation system by subdividing tribal lands into individual plots.

From removal to the reservation

From the earliest days of European colonization, bloody clashes over land and natural resources plagued relations between white settlers and Native Americans. European settlers used a variety of methods to wrest land away from indigenous people, from the negotiation of treaties to forcible removal to declarations of war.1
As white settlers pushed ever further westward across the American continent, these brutal conflicts over land became more frequent and more problematic for the US government. In 1824, the Office of Indian Affairs was created in order to resolve the land issue. The position of Commissioner of Indian Affairs was established by an act of Congress in 1832, and in 1869, Ely Samuel Parker became the first Native American to be appointed to the position. The Office of Indian Affairs was renamed the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1947.2
Photograph of Ely S. Parker.
Ely S. Parker was the first Native American to be appointed Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Image courtesy National Archives.
The Indian Removal Act of 1830 institutionalized the practice of forcing Native Americans off of their ancestral lands in order to make way for European settlement. The US government forcibly relocated the Five Civilized Tribes (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole) to territories that would become the states of Kansas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma, in a death march that became known as the Trail of Tears.
The Indian Appropriations Act of 1851, also known as the Appropriation Bill for Indian Affairs, authorized the establishment of reservations in Oklahoma and inspired the creation of reservations in other states as well. The US federal government envisioned the reservations as a useful means of keeping Native Americans off of lands that white Americans wished to settle.3

On the reservation

Many Native Americans resisted the imposition of the reservation system, sparking a series of conflicts known as the Indian Wars. Through a series of bloody massacres and victories in battle, the US Army ultimately succeeded in relocating most indigenous people onto reservations. The surrounding land and natural resources of the West were thereby opened up to white settlers.4
Photograph of Shoshone people sitting outdoors and dancing.
Shoshone at Ft. Washakie reservation in Wyoming, 1892. Image courtesy National Archives.
For most Native Americans, life on the reservation was difficult. Although indigenous people were allowed to form their own tribal councils and courts, and thus retain their traditional governing structures, Native Americans on the reservations suffered from poverty, malnutrition, and low standards of living and rates of economic development.5
In 1868, President Ulysses S. Grant adopted a policy aimed at assimilating Native Americans into mainstream US society. Government officials who oversaw Native American affairs were replaced with Christian clergy in order to convert indigenous people to Christianity. This policy led to violent resistance on the part of many Native Americans and was ultimately abandoned under President Rutherford B. Hayes.6

The destruction and resurrection of the reservation system

In 1887, the US Congress passed the Dawes Act, which ended the reservation system by authorizing the federal confiscation and redistribution of tribal lands. The aim of the act was to destroy tribal governing councils and assimilate Native Americans into mainstream US society by replacing their communal traditions with a culture centered on the individual. To this end, tribal lands were parceled out into individual allotments, and only those Native Americans who accepted the individual plots were allowed to become US citizens.7
A map of the United States. Indigenous territory is concentrated on the Western half primarily in Montana, Wyoming, North and South Dakota, and Oklahoma, as well as the New Mexico and Arizona Territories.
Map showing the land allocated for indigenous reservations in 1890.
In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt encouraged the passage of the US Indian Reorganization Act, which instituted a “New Deal” for Native Americans, authorizing them to reorganize and form their own tribal governments. The act ended the land allotments created by Dawes Act and thereby resurrected the reservation system, which remains in place today.8

What do you think?

Why was the reservation system initially implemented?
Why did the US government split up reservations into individual plots of land?
What was the impact of the Dawes Act on indigenous people?

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