The Dawes Act — February 8, 1887

Federal Indian policy during the period from 1870 to 1900 marked a departure from earlier policies that were dominated by removal, treaties, reservations, and even war. The new policy focused specifically on breaking up reservations by granting land allotments to individual Native Americans. Very sincere individuals reasoned that if a person adopted white clothing and ways, and was responsible for his own farm, he would gradually drop his Indian-ness and be assimilated into the population. It would then no longer be necessary for the government to oversee Indian welfare in the paternalistic way it had been obligated to do, or provide meager annuities that seemed to keep the Indian in a subservient and poverty-stricken position

On February 8, 1887, Congress passed the Dawes Act, named for its author, Senator Henry Dawes of Massachusetts. Also known as the General Allotment Act, the law allowed for the president to break up reservation land, which was held in common by the members of a tribe, into small allotments to be parceled out to individuals. Native Americans registering on a tribal "roll" were granted allotments of reservation land.

Old classroom at St. Joseph's Indian School
Distribution of beef rations
Rosebud Agency, ca. 1893
John. A. Anderson
Photo courtesy of
Nebraska State Historical Society

Each head of family was allotted, one-quarter of a section (120 acres); each single person over 18 years of age, one-eighth of a section (60 acres); each orphan child under 18 years of age, one-eighth of a section (60 acres); and all other single persons 18 years now living, one-sixteenth of a section (30 acres).

Section 8 of the act specified groups that were to be exempt from the law. It stated that "the provisions of this act shall not extend to the territory occupied by the Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Seminoles, and Osage, Miamies and Peorias, and Sacs and Foxes, in the Indian Territory, nor to any of the reservations of the Seneca Nation of New York Indians in the State of New York, nor to that strip of territory in the State of Nebraska adjoining the Sioux Nation on the south."

Subsequent events, however, extended the act's provisions to these groups as well. In 1893, President Grover Cleveland appointed the Dawes Commission to negotiate with the Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Seminoles, who were known as the Five Civilized Tribes. As a result of these negotiations, several acts were passed that allotted a share of common property to members of the Five Civilized Tribes in exchange for abolishing their tribal governments and recognizing state and federal laws.

In order to receive the allotted land, members were to enroll with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Once enrolled, the individual's name went on the "Dawes rolls". This process assisted the BIA and the secretary of the interior in determining the eligibility of individual members for land distribution.

The purpose of the Dawes Act and the subsequent acts that extended its initial provisions was supposedly to protect Indian property rights, particularly during the land rushes of the 1890s, but the results were vastly different. The land allotted to the Indians included desert or near-desert lands unsuitable for farming.

Old playground at St. Joseph's Indian School
Log House and Tipi
Rosebud Agency, ca. 1900
John A. Anderson
Photo courtesy of
Nebraska State Historical Society

In addition, the techniques of self-sufficient farming were much different from their tribal way of life. Many Indians did not want to take up agriculture, and those who did want to farm could not afford the tools, animals, seed, and other supplies necessary to get started.

There were also problems with inheritance. Often young children inherited allotments that they could not farm because they had been sent away to boarding schools. Multiple heirs also caused a problem; when several people inherited an allotment, the size of the holdings became too small for efficient farming.

The act also established a trust fund to collect and distribute proceeds from oil, mineral, timber, and grazing leases on Native American lands. The failure of the Bureau of Indian Affairs to manage this trust fund properly led to legislation and lawsuits in the 1990s and early 2000s to force the government to properly account for the revenues collected.

Sources
The Dawes Act or General Allotment Act of 1887. U.S. Statutes at Large 24:388-91 http://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?doc=50&page=transcript.