The Dawes Act and Its Aftereffects


The history of the United States is closely connected with the destiny of two ethnic groups: African-Americans and Native Americans. Both Nations were oppressed by American governments for several centuries. Still, the case with Native Americans is a unique one for the reason that in contrast to African-Americans who came from other places of the world, Native Americans were deprived of their land, where their ancestors lived. Still, history is the field that does not provide us with hundred-per-cent reliable answers. On the contrary, the events of the past are enigmatic because we cannot judge objectively events that took place several decades ago, as we have not been their active participants. One of the events in the history of Native American and the US government relationships which is considered the most dreadful in the destiny of Native Americans is the Dawes Act or General Allotment Act of 1887 and its aftereffects. Nevertheless, the Act has not been investigated to the full, and there are uncovered and unclear questions to be solved. “In Indian history, the period between the Dawes Act (1887), which provided for allotment of reservations, and the Indian Recognition Act (1934), which reserved the Dawes Act, has been largely neglected by historians“ (Smith 114). The thing is that there are controversies over the issue of whether the Act was a successful one, but its implementation was not appropriate, or the nature of the act contradicted the essence of democracy and morality.

Historical Background of the Dawes Act

To give a substantial answer to the question one should investigate not only the Act itself but also the historical background which could anticipate the act adoption. Some historians suppose that the most unsuccessful period for Native Americans was the nineteenth century. The territories which they occupied were highly attractive for the wealthy people. That is why they tried to do much to make Native Americans share their land. Still, the practice of granting land to individual Indians was not a new one for Native Americans in the nineteenth century. The thing is that “historian J. P. Kinney discovered the first published mention of Indian allotment in a 1633 order of the Massachusetts Colony General Court” (Greenwald 16). It means that the history of Native Americans and allotment began almost with the history of the British colony in America. Some documents prove that in the eighteenth century some Indian tribes adopted systems of land tenure which result in was the division of land among individuals. It means that it is rather difficult to admit that the bureaucratic principles of Americans were unfamiliar for them and the act of the 1887 year contradicted their moral system. Still, the fact that influential white people used such a system for enrichment was neglected by the government. For example, many Indians had debts, and they used the land as a way to pay it off. As a result, rich people got benefits from the situation: they bought up chip land of Native Americans and in such a way they enlarged their land empires (Greenwald 16). Such activities were left unnoticed by the government. The fact that in the future the US government continued the policy of privatization even though it was not so beneficial for Native Americans but to White people, gives the right to suppose that the Dawes Act was a result of the “closed eyes” phenomenon. It means that the government simply did not care about the destiny of a single Native American, as well as it was indifferent to the destiny of a single average White American. In other words, the Dawes act was just the effect of the government policy, but not a directed anti-Native Americans action. Nevertheless, it is just a supposition. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the US government continued the policy of allots. In the 1830s such tribes as Chickasaws, Choctaws, and Creeks were moved off the Indian Territory (Greenwald 17). It was just the beginning of the removal policy.

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Commissioner of Indian Affairs George Manypenny renewed the practice of associating allotment with removal in the 1850s. During his tenure (1853-57), Manypenny oversaw at least twenty-eight treaties containing allotment provisions. (Greenwald 17-18)

One of the historical events that may contradict the idea of the premeditated adoption of the Dawes Act to take the majority of the land from Native Indians is the peace policy. “In 1869, President Grant had announced a new “peace policy” toward Indians, urging “their civilization and ultimate citizenship” (Murrin, Johnson, McPherson, and Gerstle 678). It could mean that relationships between “white” and “red” Americans could become less tensive. Still, the term “civilization” meant total assimilation of Native Americans in American society: language, traditions, religion, etc. In this aspect, the Dawes Act was nothing but an attempt to accelerate the process of assimilation and make it less or more tangible. However, the results of the act and its goals are closely connected. To investigate the issue we should analyze the goals of the act.

Possible Goals of the Dawes Act Adoption

Speaking about the goals of the Dawes Act, we cannot but mention that officially there were two of them. The first one was the necessity to civilize Native Americans and make the shift to the European style of lifeless crucial for them. In this aspect, civilization meant an improvement of the social and economic conditions of life. The thing is that many people who tried to support Native Americans and provide them with a deserved basis of life believed that the system of tribes and communes according to which Indians lived, was outdated. From this point of view, the Dawes Act was an action directed to enhance Native Americans’ life. The second goal was to give Native Americans an opportunity to develop a new system of organization, to lead one’s own farm. Still, beside the act, the government did not provide Native Americans with appropriate conditions which could serve as a basis for progress. Land which was allotted to Indians was not the best one to cultivate corn or breed cows. The third unofficial goal was to get the land of Native Americans. In this aspect the Dawes Act was nothing but a swindle on a governmental level. It means that the American government had all proves that the reform will not beneficial for Native Americans. Upon the pretext of the Act’s content we may suppose that it was composed in such a way that it gave an impression of great opportunities for Indians, the government provided itself with legislative basis to get the Indians’ land in a legal form (Gunn). Regarding the goal of the Dawes Act, it is highly important to define which one was the most important for the government. All three goals do not contradict the Act; still, it is obvious that its implementation was held in one direction.

The Dawes Act: Implementation and Consequences

In 1887 a law, in many ways crucial for Native Americans, was approved. Massachusetts Senator Henry Dawes sponsored the law implementation. The Dawes Allotment Act was intended for the assimilation of Indians by American white society and tribes dissolving. Indians were supposed to master farming techniques, as well as the main principles and guidelines of an individualistic outlook and benefits of private property ownership. The Dawes Act presupposes subdivision of reservation territory among Indians into the proportion of 160 acres per head of a family, 80 acres per person over 18, and 40 acres per other members of a tribe. Indians were expected to start farming or livestock businesses. During 25 years Indians could acquire titles for their allotments; lands, which were left after the allotment, the government sold to settlers. An idea, stimulated by the work ethic of White Americans, included several notions. Firstly, Indians were expected to start farming businesses or other kinds of employment as long as they had to be forced by the fact of less land owing. Money, which had to be gained from the selling of the allotted land, was to be spent for the purchase of farm machinery, houses providing, and general assistant. Unfortunately, the Dawes Act not only violated all spheres of Indians life, but it was also poorly administrated. Act’s implementation was the drawback of misguided bureaucrats (Nichols 205). Not all Indian tribes were under the impact of the act. “The text of the Dawes General allotment Act lists and extended number of tribes to which the law did not apply, because of preexisting policies about land in severalty” (Hauptman and McLester 186). Still, such luck of the tribe could be explained by the fact that Oneida, one of the tribes which were in the list mentioned above, relocated from the US to Canada.

Still, the new law did not eliminate tribalism as Indians way of life. Native Americans continued living in communities, in small villages and did not accept alien religion, Christianity, the wisdom of white Americans, which included education, the structure of a family, and notions concerning rights of private property ownership. Moreover, they were hardly capable to work on infertile lands as well as use the agricultural machinery of white people. There were several reasons which led to this situation.

The consequences of the act’s implementation were disastrous for Indian cultural, political, economical, and everyday life. Firstly, Indians believed in the sacred importance of land for ages. Such notion as private property was alien to their cultural, religious, and mythological awareness. The land belonged to everybody; no one could own it privately. A communal way of holding property was a part of their mentality. Secondly, the farming and livestock business was also an unfamiliar sphere of theoretical and applied knowledge. Indians were good at cultivation crops, or agriculturalists, not stock farmers. This way of life was as alien, as other principles, promoted in the Dawes Act. The law also influenced the political life of Native Americans, mainly, tribal leaders authority. Earlier all goods and services had been provided only after the tribal leader’s approval; after implementation of the Land in Severalty Act, the government dealt with individuals. It provided the direct supply of food, payment, and procurements, ignoring tribal authorities. Naturally, tribal leaders forfeited their former weight.

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Moreover, Indians were often allotted poorer lands, while better and more fertile territories were left as potential “surplus”. Taking into account the real value of these territories Native Americans lost even more than eighty percent of their lands. At the same time, there were other reasons for Indians inability to equal competence with white settlers. The main cause lay in the fact, that promised governmental support was rarely fulfilled. Indians did not receive prescribed, money, supplies, and technical advice. Their lands were poorly suited for agricultural business which led to the decline of Indians life standards (O’Brien 77-79). After the Dawes Act implementation, the population of Native Americans shrunk to 237, 196 individuals by 1900 (Merchant 145).

Apart from all mentioned above tribes lost a huge amount of property and land due to the Dawes Act. Economical consequences of the law’s implementation included the allotment of more than 100 reservations what meant that tribes lost about ninety million acres. The allotment territories composed approximately two-thirds of the land, Indians had owned in 1887. Thereby Indians landholdings declined from 155 million acres in 1881 to 56.6 million acres by 1990. “Sixty million acres of this lost land had been sold as “surplus” in accordance with the Dawes Act” (O’Brien 78).

The Dawes Act by Native Americans and White Americans

Of course, it is difficult to judge the act and its aftereffect experience on Native Americans. Still, it is obvious that Native and White Americans had different social positions and had different points of view about the Dawes Act, its goals, and its impact. “For whites who were eager to seize reservation land, the Dawes Act brought the bonanza” (Hauptman and McLester 184). Indians were allowed to survive, develop different kinds of farms, etc. However, “small farmers stood little chance of watering their crops if irrigation companies held a monopoly on water rights or storage facilities; nor did they have much chance of success if cattle or railroad barons coveted their land” (Zelizer 277). The Native Indians attitude towards the Act was caused by actual losses” “Indians held slightly over 150 million acres before the act; that estate shrank to 104 million acres by 1890, to 77 million by 1900, and 48 million by 1934” (Stock and Johnston 17). Still, the term “losses” referred not only to the economic factor but also to the culture, traditions of Indians. Native Americans had to renounce their culture, history, beliefs, traditions according to which their nation lived for many centuries. It is not a surprise that many Native Americans did not agree with such a “contract”. Today the majority of the Native American community, which is a small group nowadays, consider the Dawes Act an act of genocide, nothing more nothing less. And there are lots of reasons why they think so. “Did the US government create conditions for the conquered tribes that were desperate that they resulted – directly or indirectly – in widespread loss of life? Yes, in many instances and for many years” (Healey 254).

On the one hand, the Dawes Act was considered by the government a helping hand. Federal policies of the nineteenth century were guided by the idea of civilizing Native Americans and sharing with their benefits an advanced and intelligent way of life. There was the necessity to speed up Indians entry into the general society of the Americas as long as great territories lay untouched. Such assimilation would bring America great economic profit and a great cultural, economical, religious, and political leap in the development of Native Americans. “The federal government’s allotment policy assigned farmsteads to individual Indians in an attempt to merge the new Indian yeomanry into national life” (Clark 1). On the other hand, the assimilation was supposed to make millions of acres of so-called surplus reservation lands available for white farmers, ranchers, miners, and corporations (Nichols 204). As Commissioner William A Jones wrote, an Indian was allotted and then he could turn over his land to white people and “go on his aimless way” (Nichols 206-207). Thereby, white people got the possibility to exploit Native Americans’ lands.

Despite the official position of American authorities, which prospered in the white society and interpreted white people as the Great White Fathers to the Indians, there were other opinions. For example, “the most effective means of encouraging the tribes to meld into white society, as legal historian Lloyd Burton explains the Dawes Act, was simply to relieve them of much of their well-watered, arable land” (Merchant 145). Samuel Bowles, a western traveler, and writer explained the implementation of the Dawes Act as the position of white leaders, who considered the white race superior and more capable to dispose of Indians lands wealth, than Indians themselves. Nowadays, objectives of policies, which were directed to the establishment and improvement of relationships between Indians and white people, are considered not only shortsighted, but wrong-headed, and in some way, criminal: “That the process might cause irreparable harm, or that Indians might object vigorously to the enforced changes being sought seems to have made little impact on reformers’ thinking” (Nichols 204).

Concluding it should be pointed out that the Dawes Act was a turning point in the destiny of Native Americans. There are constant debates over the issue of whether the Dawes Act was an act of genocide or a helping hand given to Native Americans. The majority of Indians are indifferent about the goals of the US government, whether they were beneficial or not for Indians, they see the only aftereffect of the Act implementation. What we may see today is the extinction of the ethnos of Indians which was the result of the act. After we have looked through some aspects of the Dawes Act and its history, we may admit that one of the main reasons which led to the ethical catastrophe was the indifference of the government. Though the first steps in the Dawes Act implementation were not successful, the allotment process was pushed. It delivered Congress from the necessity to approve large appropriations for Native Americans’ support and protection. The idea included one reason: if Indians lived on the leasing income and were not engaged in expected types of physical labor then the pushing of the Dawes Act was topical. However, there were no objective reasons why the act could be implemented in such a way that it did not harm Native Americans: Congress suffered from the pressure of Western townsite promoters, who obtained alienation of allotted land; authorities ignored data which indicated that the process of Native Americans assimilation was not so successful as it was expected; nobody took into consideration cultural and religious peculiarities of Indians life, as well as their past economic and agricultural experience; the failure of Indians educational program was not also taken into account. High principles and ideas failed not only on the reasons of Dawes Act drawbacks but also thanks to the abuse of power by local and national authorities (Nichols 204-217).

Works Cited

Greenwald, Emily. Reconfiguring the Reservation: The Nez Perces, Jicarilla Apaches, and the Dawes Act. New Mexico: UNM Press, 2002. Print.

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Gunn, Steven. “Indian General Allotment Act (Dawes Act) (1887)”. eNotes.

Hauptman, Laurence, and McLester, Gordon. The Oneida Indians in the Age of Allotment, 1860-1920. Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 2006.

Healey, Joseph. Diversity and Society: Race, Ethnicity, and Gender. Newbury Park: Pine Forge Press, 2009. Print.

Merchant, Carolyn. The Columbia Guide to American Environmental History. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005. Print.

Murrin, John, Johnson, Paul, McPherson, James, and Gerstle, Gary. Liberty, Equality, Power: A History of the American People, Compact. Stamford: Cengage Learning, 2007. Print.

Nichols, Rogers. The American Indian: Past and Present. Bonn: VNR AG, 1986. Print.

O’Brien, Sharon. American Indian Tribal Governments. Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993. Print.

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Smith, Sherry. “Indians, Bureaucrats and Land: The Dawes Act and the Decline of Indian Farming”. The Public Historian 1982: 114-116. Print.

Stock, Catherine McNicol, Johnston, Robert. The Countryside in the Age of the Modern State: Political Histories of Rural America. New York: Cornell University Press, 2001. Print.

Zelizer, Julian. The American Congress: The Building of Democracy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004. Print.

Clark, Blue. Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock: Treaty Rights & Indian Law at the End of the Nineteenth Century. Matteson, Illinois: University of Nebraska Press, 1999. Print.

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