The General Allotment Act of 1887, also known as "The
Dawes Act," was at least 10 years in the making. After
the Civil War, the rapidly increasing westward expansion of
the European immigrants looking for land of their own and
passage to the West, the construction of the railroads to
the western coast, miners seeking rich ore lodes, and the
ever increasing settlement of the northern Great Plains for
farming placed pressure upon Congress that was difficult to
resist. All these groups wanted the Indian lands opened to
white settlement and use.
Justification of Treaty Violation
The Indian lands were held in common by the tribes, without
the concept of private property.
The allotment of these lands into parcels held individually
had been first supported by Carl Schurz, President Hayes Secretary
of the Interior, after the Commissioner of Indian Affairs
presented him with a draft of a severalty bill. This cause
was also strongly supported by groups of humanitarian reformers
who desired to find a way to protect the Indians from the
illegal incursions of those seeking the lands for their own
use and for the natural resources found within. Among the
justifications for this proposed change in policy, which would
be a clear violation of the treaties only recently signed,
1) only fee simple titles to the land would protect the Indians
against the wholesale loss of their lands;
2) the possession of individual homesteads would teach the value
of work for the purpose of their
own advancement, that is, to shift the value system of the
Indian from the community based tribal culture to the individual
based Euro-American value system, and thus
3) break the hold of the tribal system and its community based
rituals. This break was recognized also as the goal of the
boarding school education system and the of the missionaries
who worked among the tribes as the only way to "civilize"
the Indians and to assimilate them into the rest of American
Homestead Act Influence
There was also another pressure for the allotment of the Indian
lands. The Homestead Act of 1863 allowed anyone, the head
of a family, or twenty-one years or more of age, to file for
a quarter-section of unappropriated public land (160 acres).
The land was yours at the end of five
years if you had built a house on it, dug a well, broken (plowed)
10 acres, fenced a specified amount, and actually lived there.
General Philip Sheridan, in his Annual Report of the Lieutenant
General of the Army, had noted in 1885, and again in 1886,
that the Indian reservations contained about 200,000 square
miles with a population of only 260,000 Indians. Allotting
the reservations in the same manner as the Homestead Act prescribed
would leave 170,000 square miles of "excess" lands
that could be sold off, and the proceeds could be used to
support the Indians.
There was vocal opposition to the allotment of Indian lands.
Considerable debate within the reformers community over the
effect of allotment on the Indian communities and cultures
took place. When the Indian agents were asked for their opinion,
they almost universally opposed allotment. Many government
officials, including George W. Manypenny, a former Commissioner
of Indian Affairs, who had supervised small scale allotment
programs previously, spoke out against allotment of Indian
lands to individuals.
In response to these pressures, Sen. Richard Coke of Texas
took over the sponsorship of the Allotment bill in 1880. The
debate that took place in this year was the most extensive
that ever took place on this issue. An attempt to protect
the Indians by holding the "excess lands" in trust
and inalienable for a period of 25 years. The individual allotments
were also to be protected in this way. Strong arguments were
made against the bill by several who pointed out that this
policy would be disastrous for the Indians, divesting them
of most of their land in a very few years. A provision had
been written into the bill that allotment of the reservation
must be approved by 75% of each tribe before it could take
place. However this protection was soon removed, allowing
allotment to be imposed without the agreement of the tribal
During the period when this bill was under consideration,
voting privileges were denied to an Indian man, John Elk,
living off the reservation in Nebraska and working his own
land on the grounds that he was not a citizen. This decision
was upheld by the Supreme Count with two justices dissenting.
To correct this obvious miscarriage of justice, a clause was
added to the Allotment bill (Section 6) granting citizenship
to Indians "to whom allotments shall have been made under
the provisions of this act, or under any law or treaty, and
every Indian born within
the territorial limits of the United States who has voluntarily
taken up, within said limits, his residence separate and apart
from any tribe of Indians therein, and has adopted the habits
of civilized life, . . . "
"Excess Lands" and Railroads
Over the next few years, after more concessions were made
to the political pressures, it became clear that the bill
would never pass as long as the "excess lands" remained
inalienable for 25 years after allotment. Therefore this final
concession was made allowing the bill to pass "in record
time" in 1887.
While the railroads had not taken an active part in pushing
for the allotment act, allowing others to carry the battle,
they were clearly the most immediate beneficiary. In the same
session of Congress in which the Dawes Allotment Act was passed,
six of the nine Indian bills that were passed were grants
to railroads. In the following session, the first session
of the Fiftieth Congress, 13 laws granting railroads rights-of-way
through Indian lands, while in the second
session 10 more such bills were passed. These land grants
began the "checker-boarding" of the reservations
that still create enormous problems of jurisdiction in law
Farming vs. Leasing
The supporters of the Allotment Act had apparently failed
to consider that not every Indian would choose to farm. Those
who wished to homestead had freely made the choice themselves.
The Indians were given no choice. All were expected to farm,
independent of age, disability or desire. No provision had
been made to allow any Indians to lease their allotment in
order to gain income from it while following another path.
In February of 1981, the Dawes Act was amended to allow such
leasing of allotments. Eventually, individual allotments could
be sold, and many were, to pay taxes or other bills requiring
cash payment. In this way, with the right-of-way grants,
sales of the "surplus lands" and of individual allotments,
much of the original reservation land was lost. From 138 million
acres in 1887, reservation land holdings had shrunk to 48
million acres by 1934.
Consequences of Allotment
One of the intended consequences of allotment was to break
up tribal communities by moving individuals and families away
from the communities and onto isolated homesteads. Indian
agents could then stop dealing with tribal leaders and deal
only with individuals. This tactic has been only partially
successful. There is now a large urban Indian community, generated
in part by the loss of family allotments, but tribal communities
remain on the reservations and many in the urban Indian communities
maintain ties with the reservation.
With the New Deal came a different attitude toward relations
with the Indian tribes. The change in attitude began in the
Hoover administration and reached its culmination with the
appointment of John Collier as Commissioner of Indian Affairs
in 1933 in the Roosevelt administration. Many New Deal agencies
greatly benefited the Indians by giving immediate relief from
the grinding poverty of the Depression by offering employment.
In 1933, Collier began implementing his goal of reversing
the allotment process by ordering a stop to the sale of trust
lands and other provisions of the Dawes Act. In 1934, with
Collier's strong pushing, and President Roosevelt's support,
the Wheeler-Howard Act, otherwise known as the Indian Reorganization
Act, was passed. This bill repealed allotment by prohibiting
further allotment, extending trust periods and restriction
on alienation of Indian land. "Surplus" lands were
returned to the tribes. Individual allotments could be voluntarily
returned to tribal ownership. Additional lands could be acquired
for the tribes.
Indian tribes could now organize for their common welfare,
adopting a constitution and bylaws, which must be ratified
by a majority of the adult members of the tribe, or opt to
exclude themselves from this process. A tribe so organized
could hire legal counsel, negotiate with local, state and
federal governments, prevent the sale of tribal assets, and
manage its own property. The act also set up a revolving loan
fund to help tribes with economic development, provided for
loans to Indian students in vocational and trade schools,
and gave preferential hiring treatment
within the Indian service to Indian applicants.
The Assault on Indian Tribalism. Wilcomb E. Washburn, Robert
E. Kreiger Publishing Co., 1986
Buffalo Bird Woman's Garden. Gilbert T. Wilson, Minnesota
Historical Society Press, 1987.
The Encyclopedia of North American Indians. Frederick Hoxie
(Editor), Houghton Mifflin Co., 1996.
The Great Father: The United States and the American Indian.
Francis Paul Prucha, Univ. Nebraska Press. 1986