In the latter half of the 19th century], the United States' Indian policy shifted from simple removal and/or extermination to assimilationwhich was, among other things, more cost effective (not just in a monetary way, but also in time, effort, and casualties). It was an attempt to "kill the Indian and save the man." To extinguish the Indians' "inferior," "primitive," "uncivilized" culture and replace it with a white Judeo-Christian (more at Christian) culture and set of values. Thus a solution to the "Indian problem."
This had already been set in motion through the Indian boarding school (and day schools) programs that starting in 1879. Children were sent (in some cases taken) to these schoolsoften far from homeand indoctrinated into "proper" white civilization, while excising anything "Indian" (hair was cut, names changed, bans and punishment dealt out for any practice remotely "Indian").
As years passed, Indian religious practices were discouraged and even banned on reservations. Missionaries were encouraged to set up on reservation land for the purposes of "Christianizing" the Indian (many of the reservation day schools were run by missionaries). Even though reservations had their own tribal courts to deal with crimes committed there, the Major Crimes Act of 1885 was passed, putting jurisdiction of certain "major crimes" into state and federal hands. This further weakened tribal identity and unity.
Roots of the Act
One of the strongest parts of the Indian culture was its connection to tribal landswhich were held in common rather than individually. It was felt that this commonly held land was an obstacle and that breaking up the tribal system and encouraging private property, owned individually, would hasten the progress from "savage" to "citizen."
This idea had been held for some time: "It is impossible to overestimate the influence of property in the civilization of mankind. It was the power that brought the Aryan and Semitic nations out of barbarism into civilization" (qtd. in Wilson). From Senator Henry Dawes (sponsor of the act and something of a reformer):
The desire for property of his own may become an intense educating force.... Even if he learns its value only by losing it, and going without it until he works for more, the educational process has begun.... to instruct him to use property which is legally his, and by protecting his title, to help him through the dangerous transition period into citizenship,this is the first great step in the education of the race. (qtd. in Wilson)
These ideas were held by reformers (who, though misguided, did have Indian interests in mind), practical ones (wishing to dispose of the "problem"), and the cynical (generally wishing for access to the land). Additionally, it was known what the result would probably be and what would happen because of dividing up land and property. It was even held by some that the purpose of the act was far from simply benevolent. In a minority report of the House Indian Affairs Committee:
The real aim...[of this policy] is to get at the Indian lands and open them up to settlement...If this were done in the name of greed it would be bad enough; but to do it in the name of humanity, and under the cloak of an ardent desire to promote the Indian's welfare by making him like ourselves, whether he will or not, is infinitely worse. (qtd. in Wilson)
Looking back on the act, president Theodore Roosevelt (who once described the Sand Creek Massacre as being "as righteous and beneficial a deed as ever took place on the frontier") said it was "a mighty pulverizing engine to break up the tribal mass. It acts directly upon the family and individual" (http://nativeamericas.aip.cornell.edu).
Land cessions with or without treaties had already been going on for some time (not just the removals of the earlier part of the century)and with the 1871 Congressional decision to no longer deal with the Indians through treaties, all legislative decisions became purely unilateral (more than before). With the institution of the General Allotment Act (also known as the "Dawes Act" or "Dawes Severalty Act") in 1887, the "policy" became law and the "engine" began to work in full force.
General Allotment Act
The act, which was to nearly destroy tribal culture, identity, and unity (that all three, in most cases, managed to survive is testament to the strength of the people), was set up to parcel Indian reservation land to individual families and turn them into "citizen farmers." Some initial problems were the fact that much of reservation land was unfit for farming and few had tools or the money to purchase themand even when they were promised them, the tools were (typically) too few in number, slow in coming, or never showed up. The difficulty of the great change from one mode of existence/subsistence to another was never addressed (it is also questionable that they were pressured into agriculture at a time when the nation was moving more and more toward industrialization).
The Indian land (which was theirs to begin with) was parceled out as follows:
To each head of a family, one-quarter of a section (about 160 acres)
To each single person over eighteen years of age, one-eighth of a section (about 80 acres)
To each orphan child under eighteen years of age, one-eighth of a section;
To each other single person under eighteen years now living, or who may be born prior to the date of the order of the President directing an allotment of the lands embraced in any reservation, one- sixteenth of a section (about 30 acres).
If there wasn't enough land to cover it, it was to be allotted out to each group "pro rata in accordance with the provisions of this act." Also, if the land was only "suitable for grazing purposes," an additional parcel would be given the individual. Parents were to pick for minor children and Indian agents for the orphans.
The Indians didn't own the land outright, it was put into a "trust" with the Indians issue a "patent" on the land. It was still "owned" by the "government," but the Indian had the right to live and work there ("for the sole use and benefit of the Indian") for a period of twenty-five years (president's discretion for extension). The allottees also were given "benefit of and [were] subject to the laws, both civil and criminal, of the State or Territory in which they may reside; and no Territory shall pass or enforce any law denying any such Indian within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the law."
After the trust period, the land would be fully owned by the Indian. Also, the allottee could become a citizen of the United States if he "has voluntarily taken up...his residence separate and apart from any tribe of Indians therein, and has adopted the habits of civilized life," entitling him "to all the rights, privileges, and immunities of such citizens, whether said Indian has been or not, by birth or otherwise, a member of any tribe of Indians within the territorial limits of the United States." (Many Indians became citizens this way. In 1924, the Indian Citizenship Act was passed, giving blanket citizenship to all Indians "born within the territorial limits of the United States." Neither grant of citizenship gave Indians voting rights, though as a consequence of the 1924 act, most states did.)
The act also provided that surplus land was allowed to be parceled outnon-Indians ("settlers") and "any religious society or other organization...now occupying any of the public lands to which this act is applicable, for religious or educational work among the Indians" could also be granted land (both in the same 160 acre allotments). It was also set up so that the Indians could sell back the land to the government. This further shrunk the previously held tribal territory.
Another problem was that after the land became "officially" owned by the Indian, it was then subject to local, state, and federal taxes. Sometimes the owner was unaware of this but even when he was, the land was often lost later on due to the burden of taxes placed upon it.
In order for the tribal members to take part in the allotment, they needed to register (something the government had wanted for some time) on what was called the "Dawes Rolls" (some Indians, already distrustfulfor good reasonof the government, refused to "enroll" and lost the chance for land). It was a way of determining one's "status" as an Indian. The Indian had to "document" just how much of an "Indian" he was. If he could prove he was at least one half (or more) Indian of a federally recognized tribe, he qualified ("he" because females were excluded) for allotment. Anyone else was not given landthe land then becoming "surplus." This is also referred to as "blood quantum" wherein one's status is determined by the degree of ethnicity/race.
The enrollment brought problems. One requirement was that names had to be anglicized. The problem there being (beside the attack on cultural and personal identity) that unscrupulous agents were able to add friends and relatives to the lists who were not Indians and who had no right to the land. Another part of the "blood quantum" issue was that
one could not be, say one-quarter by descent of four different indigenous peoples through intermarriage, and still be legally identified as a native. Nor could one be adopted or naturalized as a citizen/member of an indigenous nation. Needless to say, such criteria not only negated one of the most important sovereign prerogatives of native peoplesdefinition of their own politiesit left far fewer eligible Indians than available plots of reserved land. Hence, the massive "surplus" of indigenous property. (Churchill)
In fact, the hypothetical Indian above would only be considered one-quarter Indian.
The act was amended in 1891, which modified the amount of land (to one-eighth section) and provided conditions for leasing the allotments. The Burke Act of 1906 made the twenty-five year period discretionary to the Secretary of the Interior who may determine that the Indian is "competent and capable of managing his or her affairs" and release the land from trust. It also provided that if the Indian died before the end of the period, the Secretary of the Interior (again, at his discretion) could either determine the heirs and issue patents to them or allow the land to be sold and the "purchaser or purchasers" given the patent (the proceeds of which might go to the heirs). It ends by stating that the Secretary's action in "determining the legal heirs of any deceased Indian, as provided herein, shall in all respects be conclusive and final"even the right to declare one's heirs was taken away.
As would be expected, the results of the General Allotment Act (and amendments) were not more "assimilation" nor did it make significantly more farmers out of the Indians. What it didand as noted, what many thought its purpose waswas break up the unity of tribes (and families) and significantly shrink the landbase of the Indians (land that went to non-Indians, primarily). From its inception to its repeal in 1934, the land "owned" by the Indians shrank from about 138 million acres to about 48 million (a total already greatly lessened by 1887 due to removals, treaties, or "disposal" of the occupants whether through disease or other means). Close to twenty million of those were not fit for farming and by 1933 almost half of the Indians on allotment reservations were without land
Further, it was already known that the act wasn't working. In the 1920s, Congress created the Meriam Commission (overseen by the private Brookings Institute) to look into, among other things, the "success" of the allotment system. It produced the extensive 1928 report "The Problem of Indian Administration," which showed the act to be a terrible failure and rife with "fraud and misappropriation" (www-personal.umich.edu). (It also reported on economic, legal, education, employment, and family issues.)
Among its list of preliminary conclusions are "it almost seems as if the government assumed that some magic in individual ownership of property would in itself prove an educational civilizing factor, but unfortunately this policy has for the most part operated in the opposite direction," that "some of the allotments were of such a character that they could not be effectively used by anyone in small units," and "[the allotment system] has largely failed in the accomplishment of what was expected of it. It has resulted in much loss of land and an enormous increase in the details of administration without a compensating advance in the economic ability of the Indians."
The report was a bit patronizing:
The typical Indian, however, has not yet advanced to the point where he has the knowledge of money and values, and of business methods that will permit him to control his own property without aid, advice, and some restrictions; nor is he ready to work consistently and regularly at more or less routine labor.
This, regrettably, can be seen as a sign of the timeson the other hand, many early reforms
came as a result of it (too little almost too late, perhaps) and eventually the repeal of the whole allotment system. Though, by then, most of the damage had already been done.
A Final Note
Originally, there were certain tribal exceptions to act. The groups known as the Five Civilized Tribes (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Seminole) as well as the Osage, Miami, Peoria, Sac (also: Sauk) and Fox, or the reservations of the Seneca in New York. Due to previous treaties and legal battles, it would be too difficult and too much trouble to include them. In order to get around that, the Dawes Commission was created in 1893 for the purpose to negotiate for dissolution of tribal title to their lands (tribal ownership had been guaranteed by treaties). The tribes wanted no part of it but lost anyway. In 1898, with the passage of the Curtis Act (ironic, as Charles Curtis was part Indian)without consent or participation by the principals. It effectively ended tribal governments in Indian territory as they had existed until that point and opened their land for allotment. Another bitter irony, as the group of tribes got their title because they had already assimilated much of American culture and values (particularly the Cherokee).
Full text of the act: General Allotment Act
Both Amendments (1891 and 1906): Amendments to the General Allotment Act
(Sources: Ward Churchill A little Matter of Genocide: holocaust and denial in the Americas, 1492 to present 1997, Carl Waldman Atlas of the North American Indian rev. ed. 2000, James Wilson The Earth Shall Weep: the history of Native Americans 1998, www.airpi.org/enroll.html, www.ancestry.com/library/view/news/articles/2677.asp, www.nara.gov/education/cc/dawesact.html, http:nativeamericas.aip.cornell.edu/old/Features/BIA/BIA.html, www-personal.umich.edu/~jamarcus/dawes.html, http://profs.lp.findlaw.com/ilands/ilands_4.html, www.yvwiiusdinvnohii.net/history/indmnfst.html, some information and the acts themselves found at www.csusm.edu/nadp/index.html, much of the Meriam Report can be found at www.alaskool.org/native_ed/research_reports/IndianAdmin/Indian_Admin_Problems.html)