The 1887 Dawes Act: The U.S. Theft of 90 Million Acres of Indian Land

Steven Newcomb

In his Executive Order declaring November 2011 “Native American Heritage Month,” U.S. President Barack Obama said that his administration “recognizes the painful chapters in our shared history.” As a key part of that history, today marks the 125th year since the U.S. Congress passed the Dawes General Allotment Act in 1887.

Under that allotment legislation, for which there was no legitimate constitutional basis, Indian land holdings dropped from 138 million acres down to 48 million acres, for a loss to Indian nations of some 90 million acres of land. During a period of 47 years under the Act, some 60 percent of all Indian lands at that time are characterized as having passed to the United States, thereby resulted in tremendous boost to the economic growth of the U.S. economy.

Designed as part of a divide-and-conquer policy, the Allotment Act divided the total acreage of Indian reservation lands into 40, 80 or 160 acre parcels (a head of family would receive 160 acres, a single person or orphan over 18 years would receive 80 acres, and persons under the age of 18 would receive 40 acres). Reservation lands left over were designated ‘surplus’ lands and sold off to non-Indian ‘settlers.’

Clearly, allotment was a massive grab of Indian lands by the United States, but a key goal of the policy was to destroy the integrity of Indian nations by assimilating Indian people into the body politic of the United States. It was an effort to make Indian peoples no longer understand themselves as nations, and an effort to cut their cultural connections to their traditional lands.

During his first inaugural address, President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt stated his view that the Allotment Act was “a mighty pulverizing machine intended to break up the tribal mass.” Roosevelt was the same president who stated the racist view that “it is of incalculable importance that America, Australia, and Siberia should pass out of the hands of their red, black, and aboriginal owners, and become the heritage of the dominant world races.” Behind allotment was the desire to dominate and exploit Indian lands and resources.

In 1886, one year prior to the Allotment Act, President Grover Cleveland delivered his annual address to both houses Congress. He spoke of “the management of Indian affairs,” and “the accomplishment of an object which has become pressing in its importance—the more rapid transition from tribal organization to [U.S.] citizenship, of such portions of the Indians as are capable of civilized life.” Cleveland also expressed his view that the Indians’ inclination, long fostered by a defective system of control, is to cling to the habits and customs of their ancestors and struggle with persistence against the change of life which their altered circumstances press upon them. But barbarism and civilization cannot live together. It is impossible that such incongruous conditions should coexist on the same soil.

President Cleveland further said that the paths “in which they [the Indians] should walk must be clearly marked for them and they must be led or guided until they are familiar with the way and competent to assume the duties and responsibilities of our [U.S.] citizenship.”

In his 1987 law review article, “Constitution, Courts, Indian Tribes,” law professor Milner S. Ball said the Allotment Act’s purpose was “to do away with tribes and assimilate their number into the states.” Ball further stated that there was “no constitutional basis for Allotment Act and its aftermath.” “Non-Indian desire for Indian land, for minerals, and for the Christianization-Americanization of Indians prevailed,” said Ball. Eroding Indian nationhood by imposing U.S. citizenship on Indian people—despite Indian nations being completely outside the framework of the U.S. Constitution—and working toward the dispossession of Indian nations for the economic benefit of the United States were the main rationales behind the Allotment Act.

Indian Country is still dealing with the aftermath of the Dawes Allotment Act. Indian nations are making present day efforts to reacquire portions of their traditional territories under the Wheeler-Howard Act of June 18, 1934. Otherwise known as the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA), it created a legislative framework whereby American Indians could organize themselves as “federally recognized Indian tribes” and reacquire additional lands.

Although the IRA was supposed to remedy some of the dire results of the General Allotment Act, the U.S. government is now able to presume that such federally recognized tribes no longer possess the free and independent nationhood status of their ancestors. This is because Indian Tribes organized under the IRA are legislatively presumed to exist, according to the wording of the IRA, ‘under the jurisdiction of the United States.’

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee/Lenape) is the co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008), and a columnist for Indian Country Today Media Network.

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beaver's picture
Newcomb, I love you man! I wish some of the others writing editorials here like Russell, Trimble or Trahant got rid of their White attitudes and started thinking like you.
maunka's picture
Haho! Native nations understand the dominion orientation of these IRA Constituations and now we enter an era of new Tribal Constitutional Thinking. More specifically, coming full circle and rewriting our own Tribal Constitutions and deleting phrases like "under the jurisdiction of the United States" and replacing those deleted phrases with "under the jurisdiction of the Ho-Chunk Nisoc," for example. Reclaiming our "originally free and independent nationhood" is up to us to choose to scrap these IRA Constitutions, reform them and then have our tribal citizenry ratify them with our interest in mind. Imagine, through a new Tribal Constitutional Reformation Era Native Nations can attack all the oppressive effects of these IRA Constitutions, such as "the Ho-Chunk Nisoc has plenary power" over its land, people, minerals, water, air, culture, beliefs, freedom, liberty, language, ideals, health, education, property, religion, etc...Do you get the idea? When you acquisce to their system then they believe they have the right becuase you are giving to them; thus, the solution is rewrite the Tribal Constitutions and take it back. Hmn. What do you think?
michaelmack's picture
Thanks again Steven. A problem in Indian Country is that we don't educate our young people about how U.S. politics, such as the Dawest Act, created the legal environment we remain trapped in. When I inherited my allotment interests, I had no idea what allotment was. When I tried to get clarification from the BIA, their "legalise" only confused me more. It took years for me to get some clarification on what allotment was (this was before Wikipedia and all the excellent books now available). Today, when I get asked to speak before Indian youth, I always bring up topics such as allotment and STILL most have never heard of it, nor have any firm knowledge about the legal environment that will government much of their lives - neither do they know about Removal, Relocation, ICWA, NAGPRA, tribal sovereignty, etc. etc. Indian Country does them a HUGE disservice to them by not educating them about these subjects. Failure to educate them on these topics assures that future generations will remain ignorant about the legal and political environment that controls Indian Country and will keep them subordinate to the whims of U.S. politics. This WAS and IS the goal of the U.S. political system when it comes to Indian Country. How long will the tribal governments and tribal organizations allow it to continue? Teaching Indian youth about this history does not have to be a huge effort because all the facts are now easily available online and in libraries to those who make the effort to do the research and incorporate this information into lesson plans. Indian Country should know by now that the U.S. education system avoids including the details of this history in its curriculums - largely because, to be blunt, the details reveal how treacherous, brutal, unjust, criminal, and cowardly was the process of the U.S. gaining control of this continent. So Indian Country should never "hope" that some day they might include this factual history - rather, if Indian Country wants it to be known - it will need to do the educating itself, starting with the tribal and Indian controlled organizations.
Anonymous's picture
We need to enforce the constitution, And treaties like the camels eye treaty of 408 AD needs to be addressed. Then All Law will be applied. Peace!
Anonymous's picture
this is dumb
Anonymous's picture