The Dawes Act Started the U.S. Land-Grab of Native Territory
Today, February 8, marks the 125th anniversary of the notorious Dawes Act. This is part one of a three-part series on this devastating bit of legislation. Click here if you missed part two, and click here if you missed part three.
Senator Henry Dawes of Massachusetts (1816–1903) was a firm believer in the civilizing power of private property. He once said that to be civilized one must “wear civilized clothes, cultivate the ground, live in houses, ride in Studebaker wagons, send children to school, drink whiskey [and] own property.”
His faith in that premise was so strong that he sponsored federal legislation in the 1880s to “civilize” Indians by giving them individual allotments of land. The consequences were disastrous. His legislation broke up communally owned tribal land that had guaranteed every tribal member a home and almost destroyed Indian communities, traditions and culture. It dispossessed Indian nations of almost a million acres of the land that had sustained them since time immemorial. It also opened up Indian land for white European settlers eager to fulfill the mandates of Manifest Destiny—a 19th century belief rooted in the Christian Doctrine of Discovery that American citizens had a God-given right (and obligation) to possess all the land between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
Today, February 8, marks the 125th anniversary of the passage of the General Allotment Act—commonly known then and now as the Dawes Act. The Dawes Act was one of the most effective implementations of the colonial and imperialist strategy against Indigenous Peoples of divide-and-conquer—a strategy that combines political, military and economic tactics to gain power over another power by breaking it up into
individual units that are powerless to resist domination. It was also an act of lawfare—a relatively new term for an old phenomenon: warfare by legal means. It makes “what was illegal legal,” according to Philip Giraldi, a writer and former CIA military intelligence officer. Giraldi defines lawfare as “using the law itself to subvert existing constitutional arrangements and, ironically, to undermine legal restraints.” As an example of making the illegal legal, Giraldi cites what John Yoo and Jay Bybee, lawyers in the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel during the George W. Bush administration, did when they issued legal judgments supporting torture. The Dawes Act subverted the Constitution’s acknowledgement of the sovereignty of Indian tribes and violated the federal government’s trust responsibility “to protect tribal treaty rights, lands, assets and resources.” Because of the Dawes Act, tribally owned land decreased from 138 million acres in 1887 to 48 million acres in 1934. It was a land-grab on a massive, almost unimaginable scale.
The Dawes Act was the culmination of decades of efforts by the federal government to remove and relocate Indian nations from their ancestral homelands as the tide of European settlement in America moved from the Northeast to the South and West. At the same time, the intent to “civilize” Indigenous Peoples by forced assimilation included pushing Indian children into brutal boarding schools and the banning of indigenous religion, language and cultural practices. In the 1866 annual report of the commissioner of Indian Affairs to the Secretary of the Interior, Dawes said he wanted the government to “put [the Indian] on his own land, furnish him with a little habitation, with a plow, and a rake, and show him how to go to work to use them.… The only way [to civilize the Indian] is to lead him out into the sunshine, and tell him what the sunshine is for, and what the rain comes for, and when to put his seed in the ground.” The General Allotment Act passed the following year.
It applied to all Indian nations with a few exceptions. The act did not apply 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 added by executive order.”
The Dawes Act gave the president of the United States the right to dissolve “any reservation created for
[Indians’] use, either by treaty stipulation or by virtue of an act of Congress or executive order” if in his “opinion” it would be “advantageous for agricultural and grazing purposes.” The president could then “allot” the land to individual Indians living there. The head of a family would receive 160 acres, a single person or orphan over 18 years would receive 80 acres, and boys under the age of 18 would receive 40 acres. Married Indian women were not entitled to receive allotments.
The allotments would be held in “trust” by the federal government for 25 years, and then turned over to the individual allotment holder, who would hold the title free and clear, but would now have to pay taxes on the land. The twist of the knife here was that many Indian people lost their allotments because they couldn’t afford to pay those taxes.
Indians who were eligible for allotments had four years to select their land; after that period, the Secretary of the Interior or his agents would select the land for them. All allottees who abandoned tribal life for “civilized life” were to be “rewarded” with U.S. citizenship. But the breakup of reservations and expropriation of Indian lands left very little “tribal or other property” for individual Indians to claim a right to. Any “surplus” land—all the land not allotted to individual Indians—would be “held by the United States for the sole purpose of securing homes to actual settlers.”
Land expropriation and assimilation became the federal government’s policy toward the Indigenous Peoples for the next 50 years. Commissioner of Indian Affairs Thomas J. Morgan expressed the intent of federal policy in his annual report to the Interior Secretary for 1889. “The Indians must conform to the white man’s ways, peaceably if they will, forcibly if they must. They must adjust themselves to their environment and conform their mode of living substantially to our civilization. This civilization may not be the best possible, but it is the best the Indians can get. They cannot escape it and must either conform to it or be crushed by it.” The next year, Morgan reiterated the federal government’s policy toward Indians in his annual report. “It has become the settled policy of the government to break up reservations, destroy tribal relations, settle Indians upon their own homesteads, incorporate them into the national life, and deal with them not as nations or tribes or bands, but as individual citizens,” he wrote.
The “civilizing power” of the Dawes Act did not extend so far as to provide Indian people with documentation of their allotments. The act mandated the “special agents” in charge of the reservations to make only two copies of the allotment certification—one for the Indian office and the other for the Interior Secretary.
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