Private poverty

The Dawes (or General Allotment) Act of 1887 was meant to assimilate Native Americans into the world of the whites. Its effects were calamitous. It broke up many tribally owned lands in a fated attempt to promote individual ownership (or “severalty”) and stimulate farming. 

Unaware or uncaring of the fact that tribal organization was rooted in communally owned land Congress too easily assumed that its Act’s measures to stimulate private property and the adoption of agriculture, as well as American citizenship for owners of allotments who lived separately from their tribe, would take care of themselves. As a measure to increase private ownership  it was actually fallacious: once the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) had approved an allotment it was held in federal trust for twenty-five years. Surely this was done to prevent their sale, as most Native Americans lived far below the poverty line. But being held in trust, these plots could legally not be encumbered, with debts on loans for instance, while Congress never appropriated adequate funding to support the new owners. As a result private property too often meant private poverty. And while the 1906 Burke Act permitted selected allottees to own their plot outright (patent in fee), it turned out that it actually made the sale, or seizure for nonpayment of taxes, of Indian land disastrously easier. Besides negatively affecting the Dawes Act’s targets of Native American ownership and agriculture, it reduced Indian land even more.

The restriction of government-issued allotments according to purpose (agriculture or grazing land) and family size—the standard crop-producing, family-size allotment of a 160 acres suggested a regressive homesteading policy, its size being identical to that of the 1862 Homestead Act—had an important consequence: the creation of surplus lands. These lands often became easy, not seldom illegally seized, prey for white real estate, industry, and mining interests, particularly in regions where enforcement infrastructure was inadequate. Furthermore, either by payment or by forced relocation through the 1898 Curtis Act, the federal government pushed hard to drastically limit the Indian Territory that had originally been set aside by the 1834 Nonintercourse Act for relocated tribes (and covered the current states of Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri, Colorado, North and South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming). All in all, between 1887 and 1933 Native Americans lost c. 90 million acres of land.

In the wake of the Dawes Act the Indian Service forced assimilation through education in off-reservation boarding schools. Its aim was to destroy a “savage heritage”, a blanket term for Native American languages, religions, traditional medicine, as well as dress and hairstyles. These schools disrupted tribal and family life and caused severe physical and psychological harm to individual pupils.1

Still, not all Native Americans were opposed to, or harmed by, the Dawes Act and its additional measures; in fact some used it to their own advantage. Later, in the 1930s, organized resistance against the more pluralist 1934 Indian Reorganization Act was largely initiated by those Native Americans who had successfully found their way into mainstream America. But this small, albeit vocal integrationist minority’s opinion vis-a-vis Indian policies would only resonate more strongly in the postwar years again.

Nico de Klerk

An act to provide for the allotment of lands in severalty to Indians on the various reservations, and to extend the protection of the laws of the United States and the Territories over the Indians, and for other purposes, February 8, 1887. In: The statutes at large of the United States of America: public laws of the United States of America passed at the second session of the forty-ninth Congress, 1886-1887. Washington, D.C.: Congress under the direction of the Secretary of State; [1887]; 388-391.

Topic: Indigenous peoples
Case: American journeys


1 Brett Lee Shelton. Legal and historical roots of health care for American Indians and Alaska Natives in the United States. Menlo Park, CA: Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation; 2004 February (Issue brief #7021); 7,

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