Tag Archives: Dawes Act

How About Asking?

Senator Henry Dawes, Who Sponsored the Dawes Act

Senator Henry Dawes, Who Sponsored the Dawes Act

Native peoples and European immigrants have had varied relationships. At one time, native tribes were treated as independent nations and trading partners, then later as enemies who needed to be destroyed, and even later, as childish wards who needed federal guidance to educate and assimilate them into the so-called “superior” white society. Several congressional Acts were passed to push this agenda forward, among them the Dawes and Curtis Acts. Land was the essential question: how should Indians hold titles to it?

In 1881 Senator George Hunt Pendleton of Ohio argued that whether for right or wrong, fairly or unfairly, “They [Indians] must either change their mode of life or die.” He pointed out that conditions had changed drastically for them: they were no longer treated as independent nations, they no longer had vast, rich territories on which to live, and white settlements had encroached upon lands once set aside exclusively for Native use.

Senator George Hunt Pendleton

Senator George Hunt Pendleton

Pendleton stated that as much as people might regret the situation or wish it to be otherwise, the fact remained that “The Indians cannot fish and hunt . . . they must either change their modes of of life or they will be exterminated.” He went on to urge the President: “we must change our policy . . . we must stimulate within them to the very largest degree, the idea of home, of family, and of property.”

Indian writer and activist D’Arcy McNickle (1904 – 1977), who was Cree, Métis, and Irish but an enrolled member of the Flathead tribe, later commented harshly on Pendleton’s remarks. McNickle wrote: “In the heat of such a discussion, it would not have occurred to any of the debaters to inquire of the Indians what ideas they had of home, of family, and of property.”

D'Arcy McNickle

D’Arcy McNickle

His comment was sad but true. McNickle added, “It would have been assumed, in any case, that the ideas, whatever they were were without merit since they were Indian.”

 

 

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Animal Kingdom

Native American Farming, circa 1920, courtesy Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas

White settlers to New England had different ideas about animals than Native Americans, as well as different ideas about land ownership (see last post). Native Americans did not own animals, except for a loose affiliation with dogs and horses, and perhaps tame fowl in some areas. Settlers, on the other hand, brought domesticated livestock with them, which they considered private property. Native Americans were prepared to respect these new animals, but didn’t understand the ownership of another creature.

These differing views led to clashes when Native Americans sometimes hunted livestock or kept a wandering animal for their own use. Tobacco farmers, in particular, let their hogs roam in the forest and eat fallen acorns and nuts. Often, these pigs went wild and tore up Native American corn crops. But, when they killed these feral pigs, Native Americans found themselves somehow in the wrong. Clashes over livestock allowed whites to justify pushing tribes further out from the perimeter of white settled areas. Eventually, this mentality led to a justification for Native American  removal from areas of white settlement.

These contrasting world views of property rights (land and animal) could not be reconciled. Whites found Native American ways inexplicable and “uncivilized.” Some humanitarians called the Dawes Act the “Indian Emancipation Act,” because it gave Native Americans their own private property, which they hoped would lead Indians on the road to civilization.

Band of Feral Pigs

Sketches of Indian Life

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Protection That Hurt

Senator Henry L. Dawes

Legislation on behalf of the federal government’s Indian wards often served an individual congressman’s own agenda or sensibility, rather than the best interests of Indians. Several pieces of legislation  had particularly dire consequences, and the next posts will look at a few of these harmful laws or acts.

Congressman Henry Dawes of Massachusetts sponsored  the 1887 General Allotment Act (The Dawes Severalty Act), in which each head of a family received 160 acres of land (or 320 acres of grazing land). Most reservations held land well over the amount needed for allotments, so the surplus reservation land was sold to outsiders.

The allotted land held by Indians could not be sold for 25 years, and after that period, the Indian landholders would become American citizens. Like much legislation of the period, it did not work out well for Indians, who were usually relegated to unprofitable land that couldn’t sustain them. They fell into poverty, sold or were cheated out of their land, and never became the prosperous small farmers that Congress had envisioned.

From 1887 to 1934, 90 million acres of Indian reservation land were transferred to non-Indian ownership and control.

Opening of the Uintah Reservation to Homestead Claims, courtesy Utah State University

Klamath Indians Waiting for Allotment Drawing, 1908

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An Unstable Land

Procession at White Earth Indian Reservation, circa 1908-1916, courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

Procession at White Earth Indian Reservation, circa 1908-1916, courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

Because most Native Americans were not U.S. citizens, they had few protections and were often cheated or defrauded of their valuables.  In the late 1800s, the Chippewa (also known as Ojibwe) lived on rich woodlands filled with hardwood and pines. These lands were coveted by timber interests,who took advantage of several Congressional acts designed to break up tribal ownership of land.

Ojibwe Indians Getting Land Allotments, White Earth Indian Agency, courtesy Minnesota Historical Society Photograph Collection

Ojibwe Indians Getting Land Allotments, White Earth Indian Agency, courtesy Minnesota Historical Society Photograph Collection

Through these acts, particularly the Dawes Act (see 7/13/10 post) the Chippewa were each allotted only 80 acres of non-forest land, and told that the government would sell the land they didn’t need to white men, keep the money in the treasury with the Great Father, and give it to them when they needed it.

The allotments were made, and then the non-allotted Indian land was opened up and sold to timber companies, railroads and settlers. Delighted loggers began to clear-cut the forests. As the forests were systematically destroyed, concerned citizens moved to preserve some of the beautiful land that had belonged to the Chippewa. In 1908, Theodore Roosevelt created the Minnesota National Forest, composed of 225,000 acres of Chippewa land which had been lost through the allotment system. The land was renamed the Chippewa National Forest in 1928.

Leech Lake Chippewa Delegation to Washington, 1899

Leech Lake Chippewa Delegation to Washington, 1899

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A Dreadful Act

Senator Henry L. Dawes

Senator Henry L. Dawes

Policy makers in the U.S. government thought that tribal ownership of land was inefficient and kept Indians from assimilating into American culture. In 1887, Congressman Henry Dawes of Massachusetts sponsored  the General Allotment Act (The Dawes Severalty Act).

Each head of a family would get 160 acres of land (or 320 acres of grazing land) and the surplus reservation land would be sold. (The Supreme Court had decided that the US government held title to Indian land and Indians enjoyed only a right of occupancy). The allotted land would be worked by Indian families, creating responsible farmers and ranchers who were self-sufficient and no longer dependent on government assistance.

The allotted land could not be sold for 25 years, and after that period, the Indian participants would become American citizens. Like much legislation of the period, it did not work out well for Indians, who were usually relegated to unprofitable land that couldn’t sustain them. They fell into poverty, sold or were cheated out of their land, and never became the prosperous small farmers that Congress had envisioned.

From 1887 to 1934, 90 million acres of Indian reservation land were transferred to non-Indian ownership and control.

Indian Teams Hauling Wheat to Market, 1900

Indian Teams Hauling Wheat to Market, 1900

One Result of the Dawes Act

One Result of the Dawes Act

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