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The Deplorable Legacy of the Dawes Act

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The Deplorable Legacy of the Dawes Act

Photo of original legislation. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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The history of colonization in the United States is the history of the loss of land and culture for the indigenous populations. This was accomplished in a number of different ways including biological warfare (through the unintentional and intentional spread of smallpox and other contagious fatal diseases), military aggression, and the legal system, including court decisions and legislative actions. One of the most disastrous pieces of legislation to befall Native Americans was the Dawes Act of 1887, also known as the Dawes Severalty Act, and the General Allotment Act, and led to perhaps the most profound loss of land, resources and culture that native people experienced in the history of US colonization.

The Changing Winds of US Indian Policy

The policy of removal which fueled the Indian wars of the mid to late 1800's proved to be highly costly in financial and political terms, but demonstrated that the United States had finally attained the upper hand militarily in their expansionist rush toward the West Coast. But there was still an "Indian problem" to contend with; outright extermination called for by people such as "The Wizard of Oz" author L. Frank Baum gave way to a more pragmatic approach to acquire Indian lands. It would rely on separating Indians not only from their lands but their cultures so they would assimilate into the dominant American culture once and for all.

For 60 years since the first Supreme Court decision involving Indians, Johnson v. MacIntosh (1823), the American legal system built the foundation necessary to facilitate and justify Native American land dispossession despite hundreds of treaties made in the interest of protecting Indian's retention of land and sovereignty. The discovery doctrine (the legal doctrine that the Johnson decision established) would reduce Indians to no more than tenants on their ancestral homelands. The creation of the plenary power doctrine would give Congress absolute power over Indian lands and lives, without their consent and in opposition to the purpose of the treaties. Shoring up the legal system allowed American politicians to adapt Indian policy to meet the changing needs of a rapidly growing settler population which required, above all, more land.

The Objective of the Dawes Act

Sponsored by Sen. Henry L. Dawes of Massachusetts, the purpose of the law was to divide up tribally owned lands into individually owned allotments. It was driven by the ideology that in order for Indians to assimilate into white culture they would have to be "civilized," meaning stripped of their native worldviews, customs, and even languages. This would be aided by forced attendance in government and church-run schools, while individual land ownership would encourage Indians to adopt a sedentary, agriculture-based lifestyle and instill the American values of rugged individualism, replacing the communal values that did not recognize the concept of land ownership, group or individual.

Carving Up of the Reservations

Under the Dawes Act each head of household was allotted 160 acres while single or orphaned children under 18 received 80 or 40 acres. The allotment process essentially created a grid structure out of the reservations, and once all individuals received their allotments there would be a "surplus" of unallotted lands. Under the ruse that Indians didn't need any more land other than what was needed for farming, the federal government bought (or simply took) the surplus lands and opened them for homesteading to white settlers, sold to railroads, transformed into national parks, etc. The Dawes law established a 25 year holding period before the individual was issued a patent in fee simple ownership which would free the allotment of federal restrictions, enabling an individual to sell his allotment to whomever he wanted. In 1906 the Burke Act amended the Dawes Act by lifting the 25 year restriction to those deemed "competent and capable of managing his or her own affairs" and "has adopted the habits of civilized life" which would be determined by competency commissions. Competency was largely determined based on European ancestry; i.e. the more European ancestry, the more competent a person was determined to be.

With rampant poverty afflicting reservation communities and intermarriage common, the law set up a perfect storm for more land dispossession due to economic need. During the Dawes years approximately 90,000,000 acres (two-thirds of Indian treaty lands) fell into non-Indian hands, resulting in what is called "checker-boarding" of the reservations with vast tracts of lands owned by non-Indians within reservation boundaries today.

Massive Land Grab

As the Dawes Act was being formulated, Colorado Senator Henry M. Teller was one of the most outspoken critics. Seeing through the rhetoric of benevolence and "civilization" Teller is on record as saying that the real objective of the law 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." The allotment act would not be terminated until 1934 with the Indian Reorganization Act. It's affects are still felt deeply today on the reservations and has resulted in the largest lawsuit against the United States in history, known as the Cobell case.

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