US Indian Policy from the Dawes Act to the New Deal

This is the introduction to a paper I wrote in graduate school. It sums up the effects of the Dawes Act rather succinctly.

At the turn of the 20th century, the United States government had decided upon the policy of allotment as a solution to the “Indian problem.” Allotment had become the law of the land with the passage of the Dawes General Allotment Act in 1887 and the Curtis Act, which covered Indian Territory, in 1898. These Acts allowed the President to have reservations surveyed and apportioned into individual allotments suitable for a small farmer. Individual Indians received parcels of roughly one quarter section (160 acres) each or less, depending upon the size of the reservation and the age and marital status of the Indian. Most Indians received much less than 80 acres. Two outcomes were desired. First, it was held that humanitarian impulses (as well as notions of cultural superiority) dictated assistance to our “backward brethren.” But far more importantly, Indians who were converted to farming and ranching would not need as much land to support their families as did hunters; thus, these Indians could be persuaded to sell their “excess” holdings to the government for white settlement. Allotted Indians would be subject to taxes and all the other burdens of citizenship.

The allotment policy also included programs to extinguish original Indian cultures, including languages and religion. Schools enforced the use of English only and emphasized vocational skills needed by a farmer or housewife. The policy of allotment and its educational programs ignored one insuperable flaw: many Indians did not want to farm. The cultivation of plants was not considered an honorable occupation for men in many Indian societies, especially in the northern and central Great Plains. Other native religions forbade cutting into the Earth with a sharp instrument such as a plow. Policymakers either ignored or were unaware of these obstacles. It was believed that so long as Indians held the land in common, there would be no individual incentive to bring it fully into production.

Much of the appeal of assimilation was also financial in nature. Some congressmen, particularly from Western areas, were critical of the amount of money spent on Indian affairs. They believed that by force of arms whites had taken over the continent and that therefore, nothing was owed the Indians. They decried the endless financial obligations that were required so long as Indians maintained their tribal status. They sought to abolish the Indian Bureau and terminate the federal recognition of tribes. Once tribes passed away, Indians would have no special privileges granted to them. These westerners were also frustrated that Indian land was protected from white economic exploitation. Assimilated Indians would have no federal protections to keep their lands forever beyond the reach of development. All lands would be in the public domain or be private property, and use would be unrestricted. The result would be economic growth for the nation.

To protect the Indians, the Dawes Act provided that the title to each allotment would be held in trust by the government for a period of 25 years. During this time of adjustment, the Federal government — specifically, the secretary of the interior and the bureaucrats in the Bureau of Indian Affairs –- would serve as trustee to each Indian and control all individual financial affairs. At the end of the twenty-five year period, an Indian could petition for a patent in fee simple, which would transfer title from trust status through the Federal government to the individual. At that time, the Indian had to prove competence to handle his or her property. If competent, the Indian would own the land outright, and would be subject to taxation by the state and local governments. Once an Indian received his land in fee simple, free from government control, he would be granted United States citizenship. The acceptance of an allotment implied a willingness to sever tribal ties. The concept of dual citizenship in both tribe and greater nation was not entertained. An assimilated Indian would no longer need the protection of the tribe when he or she had the protections of American culture, education, and citizenship. Once tribes no longer existed, treaty obligations would die as well. In 1905, the Supreme Court ruled that Indians who accepted citizenship could not receive federal Indian services, although this decision was overturned eleven years later.

Allotment perfected the drive to dispossess the Indians that had begun with the first treaties. The Burke Act of 1906 allowed the secretary of the interior to allow some Indians to petition for their patents before the twenty-five year period had elapsed. Some agents colluded with white neighbors to pressure Indians into receiving their patent and immediately selling their allotment, often for a fraction of its value. Further, the government operated a “competency commission” from 1915 to 1920 which forced twenty thousand Indians of less than half “Indian blood” to accept their patents without consent. When they could not pay the state taxes on the land, they were forced to sell. An estimate by the National Resources Board in 1935 revealed that about 50% of all allotments had been released from government oversight from 1900 to 1934. Most of these allotments had been alienated from Indian ownership due to the inability to pay the taxes assessed by the states and local communities. Therefore, the mixed blood Indians, who were often more acculturated than their full-blooded brethren, were more apt to lose their allotments. Full bloods actually were more likely to retain their land during the allotment period, since they were granted a longer period of government protection.

Those who managed to retain their lands were usually unable to successfully farm them. The climate of most reservations was too arid for such small plots of land to be profitable. Much of the land that remained in Indian hands by the 1930s was submarginal in quality. Population pressures further eroded the usefulness of allotments. In 1900, the Indian population of the US was numbered at 237,196. By 1930, the Indian population had increased to 343,352. This meant that there were far fewer allotments than there were Indians, a development that had not been anticipated by the framers of the Dawes Act. As the original allottees died, the laws of inheritance exacerbated this problem. Allotments became fractionated into useless parcels as their estates were divided among heirs. With the lower life expectancy of Indians, a single piece of land could pass through several estates within a few decades. Because most Indians had no wills, each successive inheritance was usually divided among several heirs. Some Indians had inherited plots only a few feet square. In areas in which Indian reservations were comprised of submarginal land, only large tracts could be utilized successfully; therefore, these allotments became even less valuable each time they changed hands. A 1934-35 survey of inherited lands that had originally been allotments found just 7 percent being used by Indians, with the remainder being sold to whites or left unused. Furthermore, allotted land benefited only one-half of reservation Indians through rent or ownership: 49 percent of Indians on allotted reservations in 1933 were landless.

Many Indians and non-Indians alike decried the conditions prevalent on reservations and boarding schools. Even before the Depression struck the United States unemployment and poverty were rules rather than exceptions. Reservations were isolated from business centers and employment opportunities. The Indian Bureau also failed to provide vocational training, expertise to help Indians create their own businesses, or plans to draw employers to the reservation. Fifty-five percent of reservation Indians in 1928 had a per capita income of less than two hundred dollars annually; the top two percent of reservation inhabitants had yearly incomes above five hundred dollars, and wages generally made up no more than two hundred dollars per annum. Schools operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs often did not have enough room for all the children living on a reservation, and many of the buildings were in poor repair. The lack of health care was evident in the astronomical rates of infection of tuberculosis and trachoma, an eye disease that could result in blindness. Benjamin Reifel, a Sioux who served as Commissioner of Indian Affairs under Gerald Ford, remembered, “While I was a boy growing up on the Rosebud Indian Reservation we had the most sickening poverty that one could imagine. Tuberculosis was a killer of Indians. The people on the Pine Ridge Reservation and at Oglala were eating their horses to survive. Impoverishment was everywhere.”

Children in boarding schools faced the same conditions due to chronic underfunding of educational programs by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Congress. As historian Floyd O’Neil has stated,

The word assimilation was not an abstract, remote concept. Rather, it was an active philosophy, with tremendous power to break up families and even to take the lives of children. For the death rate of Indian children was much higher than that of the general population.
Indian children were not welcomed in public schools, since their parents paid no taxes and lived on land outside state jurisdiction, not to mention the barrier of racism that discouraged enrollment.

How did assimilation last so long as official policy? Assimilation had been supported by many of the reformers of Indian affairs prior to the 1930s. The Indian Rights Association had been particularly influential during the 1920s and was the oldest Indian reform group then active. Founded in 1882, its stated mission was to promote Christianity and the private ownership of property for Indians. The IRA supported government policies which sup-pressed native religions. Ironically, other reformers argued that the IRA actively campaigned against Indian rights, since it sought to deny Indians their constitutional right to freedom of worship.

Because Indians had not begun to organize themselves until the 1940s, the debate on Indian policy took place with little Indian input. The reforming spirit that would overtake American social policy in the early decades of the twentieth century impacted Indian affairs as well. By the 1930s several organizations were active in the debate over federal Indian policy. Among these were the American Indian Defense Association, the Indian Rights Association, the National Council of American Indians, the National Association of Indian Affairs, and the General Federation of Women’s Clubs’ Indian Welfare Committee. Several members of these groups would receive federal appointments during the 1930s and 1940s and attempt to put their reform ideas into action. The result would be an attempt to reverse the course of federal Indian affairs.


The next part of this story can be found here and will be published in February:


2 responses to this post.

  1. […] This is the second part of a paper I wrote in graduate school, the previous section of which is located here: […]

  2. […] Indian policy from Eisenhower’s administration to Johnson’s. Part 1 can be found here: and part 2 can be found […]

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