An American Story
Laura Marti – November 10, 2021
Racial Injustice: The Devastation of the Dawes Act on Native Americans
Native American history is American history. If you’re like me, you may know more today than you had learned in school about the genocide of Native Americans throughout US history; but how much do you know about the land displacement and land theft that Native peoples experienced along with it? Have you heard of the Trail of Tears? The Homestead Act? Most likely you have. How about the Dawes Act? This was one I didn’t know anything about…until I started researching for this post. Here’s what I learned with a few other things along the way.
How would you feel if the government confiscated your land, sold it to someone else, and tried to force you to change your way of life, all the while telling you it’s for your own good? That’s what Congress did to Native American tribes over 100 years ago, with devastating results, when it passed the Dawes Act, also known as the General Allotment Act, of 1887.
As the Library of Congress tells us, “In the fifteenth century, when European settlers began to arrive in North America, the continent was richly populated with Native American communities. Hundreds of thousands of people lived in a wide range of environments from shore to shore, each community or nation with its own distinct culture.”
This map shows the early Native American tribes before western expansion. What I see when I look at it is culturally-rich, thriving Native people groups, and how different things could’ve been if different decisions had been made.
But the truth of what happened is painful. Here’s a little background leading up to it. According to Encyclopedia Britannica:
The United States has a long history of acquiring Native American land through government acts and treaties made in bad faith. Some treaties were signed with secret provisions written only in English. Others were signed by false “chiefs” who had no authority to represent the Native American nations. Meanwhile, white colonists often claimed protected land without legal consequences.
In 1787, the third Northwest Ordinance guaranteed that “The utmost good faith shall always be observed toward the Indians; their lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent…” But that didn’t last. Within a few decades, the Supreme Court made rulings stripping Native American nations of their rights — including the right to be treated as foreign nations of equal sovereignty. In 1830, US Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, forcing many indigenous peoples east of the Mississippi from their lands. While the act called for negotiation with indigenous peoples, President Andrew Jackson resorted to force.
The violent relocation of an estimated 100,000 Eastern Woodlands indigenous people from the East to the West is known today as the Trail of Tears. The Indian Appropriation Act, in 1871, also changed things dramatically. The United States now took the position that no Native American group would be treated as an independent nation. More and more of their land was converted to reservations or seized.
The Dawes Act
By the time the US passed the Dawes Act in 1887, there was very little land left. The Dawes Act was directly responsible for the loss of 90 million acres of Native American land, effectively abolishing tribal self-governance and forcing assimilation. Astounding how 100 years after making the statement that we would never take Native land without their consent, that’s exactly what we did (and had been doing).
The Dawes Severalty Act, or General Allotment Act, of 1887, was legislation sponsored by Senator Henry Dawes of Massachusetts, with the objective of abolishing each tribe’s communal ownership of land, and assimilating Native Americans into the dominant white society. It was thought that by dividing up the reservations and thereby breaking up the tribes, assimilation would follow naturally. Dawes’ goal was to create independent farmers out of Indians, giving them land and the tools for citizenship. They really thought that assimilation was the best thing to solve the “Indian problem.”
According to NebraskaStudies.org:
The law said that each head of an Indian family would get 160 acres of farmland or 320 acres of grazing land. The remaining tribal lands were to be declared “surplus” and opened up for Whites. The tribes were supposed to simply disappear. Before the Dawes Act, Indians held about 150 million acres of land. Within twenty years, two-thirds of their land was gone. Indians received very little payment for the land they gave up. They were not used to managing money so they quickly spent the money they received. The reservation system was nearly destroyed.
The Dawes Act is further described here by Oxford University Press:
The [US] government decided that instead of separating Indians from White society, Indians should be assimilated into White society. Assimilation of the Indians and the destruction of their reservations became the new federal goal.
Two very different social forces helped shape this new policy: greed and humanitarianism. Many Whites wanted Indian land and knew that they would have an easier time obtaining it if Indian tribes disappeared. This greed prompted Congress to pass the Dawes Act. The Dawes Act was also favored by many non-Indian social reformers who were aware that Indians were suffering unmercifully under the government’s existing reservation policies, and they sincerely believed that the best way to help Indians overcome their plight and their poverty was by encouraging assimilation. Although their motives differed, both groups pressured Congress to pass the Dawes Act. The objectives of the Act, as the US Supreme Court has noted, “were simple and clear cut: to extinguish tribal sovereignty, erase reservation boundaries, and force the assimilation of Indians into the society at large.” Indian tribes had no say in the matter and were not even consulted.
Most Indian tribes had no concept of private land ownership. Rather, land was communally owned and everyone worked together to gather what they could from the land and shared its bounty. In order to compel assimilation of the Indians, a scheme was developed that would undermine Indian life and culture at its core: individual Indians would be forced to own land for private use. Indians would be converted into capitalists.
Congress hoped that by allowing non-Indians to live on Indian reservations, the goals of the settlers and those of the humanitarian social reformers could both be satisfied: land would become available for non-Indian settlement within Indian reservations, and Indian poverty would be eliminated once Indians accepted the Anglo-American concept of private ownership and saw and emulated the farming and ranching habits of their new neighbors. “Within a generation or two, it was thought, the tribes would dissolve, their reservations would disappear, and individual Indians would be absorbed into the larger community of white settlers.”
What a juxtaposition of greed and the perceived humanitarianism of the time. 😳
The maps below show current Native American and Alaska Native populations, one based on the 2010 census and one based on USGS data from 2019. The difference between how much land is owned by Native Americans now vs. where they were living before colonization (see map above) is stark.
This interactive map from Slate gives a time-lapse visual of how the lands were lost over time, and shows how the US took more than 1.5 billion acres from Native Americans.
The Native peoples were often given the worst land, difficult for any type of farming. The best tracts of land, with fertile soil, were most often given to White settlers. Oxford University Press explains:
Rather than assist Indians improve their lives and overcome poverty, the General Allotment Act made their condition worse. For one thing, many allotments were unsuitable for small-scale agriculture, and even those that were suitable required money for the purchase of equipment, cattle, or seeds that few Indians had. Moreover, many Indians didn’t want to become farmers and ranchers, and viewed such a lifestyle as distasteful. It simply was naïve and unrealistic — if not callous and racist — to think that Indian life would be improved by a method that forcibly confiscated tribal land and allowed outsiders to live on Indian reservations.
Many Indian Reservations ended up disappearing. The Library of Congress reports:
The Dawes Act of 1887 dissolved many Indian reservations. An 1888 report from the Indian Rights Association, The Condition of Affairs in Indian Territory and California, questioned the U.S. government’s treatment of Native Americans: “The whole management of Indians has been abnormal . . . Everything is controlled by arbitrary laws and regulations, and not by moral, social, or economic principles.” The report concluded that opening Oklahoma up to settlers and moving Native Americans farther west “would be unjust, cruel and disastrous.”
Another consequence of the Dawes Act was something called “checkerboarding.” Many Natives peoples’ parcels were split up, even in different counties, with surplus land for White settlers in between. The end result was a checkerboard pattern across the territories, making Native management of their properties difficult. As explained by the Indian Land Tenure Foundation:
Indian lands that were alienated as a result of the [Dawes Act] were sold or transferred to non-Indian parties but remained within reservation boundaries. As a result, trust lands, fee lands, and lands owned by tribes, individual Indians and non-Indians are mixed together on the reservation, creating a checkerboard pattern. Checkerboarding seriously impairs the ability of Indian nations or individual Indians to use land to their own advantage for farming, ranching, or other economic activities that require large, contiguous sections of land. It also hampers access to lands that the tribe owns and uses in traditional ways […as well as creates jurisdictional challenges between differing governing authorities.]
This YouTube video, which discusses the Dawes Act and the Dawes Commission through the lens of the Cherokee Nation, was also helpful in understanding the effects of the Dawes Act. They state:
To ensure that each citizen was accounted for, the Dawes commission set up locating parties and enrollment sites. Citizens were often required to give testimonies to prove their citizenship or the citizenship of a neighbor or family member. The Cherokee enrollment process lasted until 1907, after which no further Indians were eligible to receive a land allotment or tribal citizenship. [A total of] 41,693 enrollees were ultimately listed and the Dawes’ final rolls were established as a basis for citizenship in the Cherokee nation. Every Cherokee nation citizen today can trace their roots to an ancestor on the Dawes’ rolls.
European settlers who arrived in North America found it filled with diverse, long-established societies. Those Indigenous societies could have become sovereign nation-states, but the settlers, and later the United States, decided instead to drive them out and steal their lands. They were denied self-rule, reduced to a tiny minority, and forced to assimilate into American White settler culture. These acts are the foundation upon which the United States as we know it today was built.
There’s no question the Dawes Act had devastating effects and consequences for Native Americans, which have been felt for decades and continue today. Most of these land issues have not been resolved. Native nations have a complex relationship with the U.S. government, and more often than not, the federal government has failed to honor its agreements or to protect the rights of Native people.
What’s most offensive is seeing the greed, corrupt tactics, deception, bribery, and trickery (like taking advantage of the language barrier to get Native leaders to sign binding documents) that was business as usual for the US government as they expanded the country westward. It’s unsettling, the more I learn, how they really thought they were doing the right things under mandates like Manifest Destiny and the Doctrine of Discovery, which they thought gave them the divine right to seize the land from Indigenous peoples.
While some of this is new for me, Native people have been dealing with it for a long time. I’m encouraged to see many initiatives that are under way in Native communities to address their land issues. But they need our help. For those of us who are pursuing antiracism and care about justice, we must continually be looking for ways we can support, elevate Native voices, and increase awareness about Native peoples and the issues they face. A lot of work needs to be done! What can you do?
Note: The term “Indian” is used interchangeably with Native American, but primarily where quoted sources use the term or original historical documents used “Indian” as the conventional term at the time.
Check out these great resources where you can learn more!
Stephen Pevar is senior staff counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union and an adjunct professor at NYU Law School, teaching American Indian Law. The introduction is by John Echohawk, Executive Director of the Native American Rights Fund.
The book explains the complex subject of federal Indian law in a clear and concise way, and is particularly useful for tribal advocates, government officials, students, practitioners of Indian law, as well as anyone in the general public who has an interest.
This Tribal Nations Map was researched and designed by Aaron Carapella, who calls himself a “mixed-blood Cherokee” and lives in a ranch house within the jurisdiction of the Cherokee Nation. A self-taught mapmaker in Warner, Oklahoma, he has pinpointed the locations and original names of hundreds of American Indian nations before their first contact with Europeans. You can read more here: The Map Of Native American Tribes You’ve Never Seen Before.