Dawes Act: History & Consequences

Instructor: David White
Through this lesson, you will be introduced to a U.S. congressional act known as the Dawes Act, and gain insight into how this piece of legislation has affected the lives of Native peoples for over a century.

What is the Dawes Act?

How do you know that you are a citizen of your country? For that matter, how do other people know that you are a citizen of your country? In most cases, this question is fairly easy to answer: you were either born there, or you went through the immigration process. For countless Native peoples living in the United States, however, citizenship is a complicated matter, and their status can be confusing for their non-Native neighbors.

Native peoples living in the United States are indeed U.S. citizens, which is the result of an 1887 congressional act referred to as the Dawes Act. The Dawes Act is the informal name for the General Allotment Act of 1887, which is responsible for the Native reservation system in the United States, and assignment of citizen status to many Native peoples.

Senator Henry L. Dawes, year unknown

The Dawes Act is named after Massachusetts senator Henry Laurens Dawes, who drafted the act and introduced it to congress. Dawes' plan was to solve what was referred to as 'the Indian problem', which had for several decades been a barrier to territorial expansion of the United States.

The Pre-Dawes Era

Beginning in 1830, congress passed the Indian Removal Act, which gave the president the authority to purchase Native lands in the south and western territories. Initially, this was done through the treaty process, in which Native tribes agreed to trade their land to the federal government in exchange for lands west of the Mississippi River. Because this was an entirely voluntarily exchange, many tribes expressed no interest, which seriously slowed the process.

In an attempt to speed up the expansion process, agents from the federal government began to make dishonest promises or use threats of violence to encourage tribes to sell their land. This often involved finding an unauthorized tribe member to sign the treaty, or making an agreement with a tribe member whose ability to speak and read English was minimal. Because of this, many Native tribes became suspicious of the government, including some who violently resisted expansion in a series of conflicts known as the Indian Wars.

The resistance of Native tribes, and the brutally violent conflicts that comprise the Indian Wars, came to be referred to as 'the Indian problem'. This was simply a polite way of referencing the bloody battles and unscrupulous governmental practices that were prohibiting westward expansion throughout the 19th century.

Solving the Indian Problem

In 1871, congress enacted the Abolition of Treaty Making, which put an end to the purchase of land through treaties, and increased the use of force in colonizing the western territories. As you might imagine, this act only made the situation worse, and increased the violent conflict between the military and the Native tribes.

In an effort to solve 'the Indian problem', Henry Dawes proposed his bill that he believed would bring an end to the violence. Dawes' act was an attempt to assimilate the Native tribes into American culture, which he believed would make them productive members of society. From his perspective, in order for a person to be productive, they needed to possess their own land and have the skills to make a living on that land.

Dawes believed that land ownership would help to assimilate the Indians
Indian land

The major points of the Dawes Act are:

1) Each tribe will be allotted a certain amount of land, which will be divided up between the men age 18 or older.

2) The members of the tribe will be responsible for deciding who is given the title to the land, and what they will do with it.

3) Any recipient of federally allotted land will be subject to the laws of their state or territory, and subject to all federal laws.

4) In cases where water is not readily available, federal agents will make arrangements for it to be delivered.

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