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The Dawes Act

The 1887 law intended to assimilate Native Americans led to the loss of millions of acres of land. 


  • The Dawes Act of 1887 authorized the federal government to break up tribal lands by partitioning them into individual plots. Only those Native Americans who accepted the individual allotments were allowed to become US citizens.
  • The objective of the Dawes Act was to assimilate Native Americans into mainstream US society by annihilating their cultural and social traditions.
  • As a result of the Dawes Act, over ninety million acres of tribal land were stripped from Native Americans and sold to non-natives.

Background to the “Indian problem”

Although violent conflict had plagued relations between white settlers and Native Americans from the very beginning of European colonization of the New world, such violence increased in the mid-nineteenth century as American settlers moved ever further west across the continent. Most white Americans believed they could not live in peace with Native Americans, whom they regarded as “primitive.”
As a result of this widespread belief, the US government created the reservation system in 1851 keep Native Americans off of lands that European-Americans wished to settle. Many indigenous people resisted their confinement to the reservations, resulting in a series of conflicts between Native Americans and the US Army known as the Indian Wars. Ultimately, the US Army subdued Native Americans and forced them onto reservations, where they were allowed to govern themselves and maintain some of their traditions and culture.1
But as white Americans pushed ever westward, they came into conflict with Native Americans on their tribal lands. Many of these white settlers viewed the continued practice of native traditions as barbaric and intolerable. They believed that assimilation (being completely absorbed) into mainstream white American society was the only acceptable fate for Native Americans. This belief was often couched in religious terms; many white Christians argued that only by abandoning their spiritual traditions and accepting Christian dogma could Native Americans be “saved” from the fires of hell.
In the late nineteenth century, a political consensus formed around these ideas, and the result was the 1887 passage of the Dawes Act.

Provisions and effects of the Dawes Act

The Dawes Act of 1887, sometimes referred to as the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887 or the General Allotment Act, was signed into law on January 8, 1887, by US President Grover Cleveland. The act authorized the president to confiscate and redistribute tribal lands in the American West. It explicitly sought to destroy the social cohesion of Indian tribes and to thereby eliminate the remaining vestiges of Indian culture and society. Only by disavowing their own traditions, it was believed, could the Indians ever become truly “American.”2
As a result of the Dawes Act, tribal lands were parceled out into individual plots. Only those Native Americans who accepted the individual plots of land were allowed to become US citizens. The remainder of the land was then sold off to white settlers.
Advertisement for the sale of Native American land. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Amendments to the Dawes Act

Initially, the Dawes Act did not apply to the so-called “Five Civilized Tribes” (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole). They had already adopted many elements of American society and culture, which is why they were characterized as “civilized.” Moreover, they were protected by treaties that had guaranteed that their tribal lands would remain free of white settlers. However, after they had proven unwilling to voluntarily accept individual allotments of land, the Curtis Act of 1898 amended the Dawes Act to apply to the Five Civilized Tribes as well. Their tribal governments were obliterated, their tribal courts were destroyed, and over ninety million acres of their tribal lands were sold off to white Americans.3
During the Great Depression, the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt supported the US Indian Reorganization Act, which authorized a “New Deal” for Native American Indians, allowing them to organize and form their own tribal governments, and ending the land allotments created by Dawes Act.4

What do you think?

Why do you think white Americans viewed Native Americans as such a threat?
Do you think the Dawes Act was intended to help or harm Native Americans?
What was the effect of the Dawes Act on Native American cultural beliefs and traditions?
What do you see as the primary difference between Native American and European American conceptions of land and ownership?

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