Public sentiment toward the plight of NATIVE Americans combined with the desire of western interests to obtain more land led to the Dawes Act of 1887. It dissolved tribes as legal entities, opened up Indian lands to individual ownership, and broke the Native American tradition of collective landholding. The act, which at the time was considered a humanitarian reform, formed the basis of U. S. policy toward Native Americans until the 1930s.
The Dawes Act of 1887 allowed reservation land to be distributed among individual members of Native American tribes. The author of the act was Massachusetts senator Henry L. Dawes (1816-1903), who was long interested in ameliorating conditions for poverty-stricken Native Americans. For several years, advocacy groups such as the Indian Rights Association pushed for the passage of the law, which until the 1880s never had sufficient political support. By the end of 1886, however, both the secretary of the Interior and commissioner of Indian Affairs supported enacting a lands-in-severalty law, and it was narrowly approved by the House. President Grover Cleveland signed the bill into law on February 8, 1887.
Under the act every head of a family in the tribe would receive 160 acres of land and 40 acres for each minor child. Adults without a family (and orphans) would receive 80 acres. If the land was suitable only for grazing the acreage was to be doubled. Native Americans were allowed to choose which land to take title to, and land was put in a trust title whereby the federal government retained full title for a period of 25 years, during which the land could not be sold or taxed. At the expiration of that period Native Americans received full title to their land and full U. S. citizenship (which would also assimilate Indians into the larger American society). Oklahoma’s so-called Five Civilized Tribes (the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole) and the Osage tribe were exempt from the act until 1898, when western land was at a premium. The Burke Act of 1906 allowed the secretary of the Interior to waive the 25-year trustee period and sped up the process of achieving full ownership and citizenship. Although most Indians had achieved full citizenship before 1924, in that year Congress conferred citizenship on all Native Americans.
Reformers believed that passage of the Dawes Act would help Native Americans realize the benefits of individual land ownership and help them participate fully in the life of the United States. Its goal was assimilation rather than self-determination. Western cattle interests, which had leased portions of the land for grazing, tended to oppose the legislation, but governments in the West widely supported the act, since the surplus land was opened up to white settlers.
The act undermined the collective, communal tradition within tribal structures and imposed an individualistic concept of land ownership. Even Dawes remarked that if the act was abused or administered incorrectly it would lead to minimal or even negative effects for Indian tribes. Indeed, over time, the long wait for full title to land was considered an impediment, and reservation land decreased dramatically; reservation land just before the passage of the law amounted to 137 million acres, but by the 1930s only 50 million acres were still owned by Native Americans.
The Dawes Act did not realize the hopes of its humanitarian authors. Its lack of success was due in part to a dearth of government support, especially for western tribes without a strong farming tradition. Native Americans often quickly lost their land once full title was taken. The land was sometimes bought by speculators, who in turn sold it to settlers. Indians also faced problems paying the taxes that were levied after full title to the land was granted. Because of the act, by the 1930s two-thirds of Native Americans were without property, and a large proportion of them were reduced to receiving government support to live. Defenders of the Dawes Act, however, stress that had it not been passed, the vast reservation lands would have been seized by white settlers (as in the past), and Native Americans would have ended up with even less land than the Dawes Act salvaged for them.
Further reading: Francis Paul Prucha, The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986).