Formally titled the General Allotment Act of 1887, the Dawes Act (also commonly referred to as the Dawes Severalty Act) authorized the president of the United States to subdivide tribal reservations into private parcels of land that would then be "allotted" to individual members of each tribe. Designed to detribalize Indians and assimilate them into mainstream white society by transforming them into selfsupporting farmers and ranchers, the Dawes Act became one of the most far-reaching and, for Native Americans, disastrous pieces of Indian legislation ever passed by Congress. By the time the allotment process was stopped in 1934, the amount of Indian-held land in the United States had dropped from 138 million acres to 48 million acres, and, of the remaining Indian-owned land, almost half was arid or semiarid desert.
Under the act, heads of families received quarter-section parcels of 160 acres, while other individuals were granted smaller tracts of up to 80 acres. Allotments deemed to be suitable only for grazing were doubled in size. Once the president directed that a particular reservation be broken up pursuant to the act, tribal members were given four years to select their specific allotment. If no such selection was made, the government made the selection for the individual. Each allotted tribal member received a patent, or trust deed, which provided that the United States would hold title to the land in trust for the benefit of the nominal Indian "owner" for a period of twenty-five years. Proponents of the legislation envisioned that during the trust period Indian allottees would adapt to the farming lifestyle and become increasingly self-reliant through the ownership and control of private property. Perhaps most significantly, the act further provided that tribal lands that were unallocated and therefore deemed "surplus" could be offered for sale to non-Indians, with the revenues to be held in trust by the government for the benefit of the tribes.
The Dawes Act affected reservations throughout the Great Plains, except in Indian Territory, which was not subject to allotment until the establishment of the Dawes Commission in 1893 and the passage of the Curtis Act in 1898. For example, the Devils Lake Sioux Reservation in North Dakota was allotted in 1904 over the objections of many of its residents. The allotments amounted to about 136,000 acres, leaving 92,000 surplus acres to be sold to non-Indians. It was through the allotment process that Plains reservations became "checkerboarded" in complex patterns of white-owned private property and Indian trust lands.
Most modern commentators concede that the proponents of the Dawes Act, including its primary legislative sponsor and namesake, Senator Henry L. Dawes of Massachusetts, were motivated by a sincere interest in the well-being and future prosperity of Native Americans. "Reformers" inside and outside the government viewed tribalism and traditional Indian cultural practices as impediments to the long-term survival and "advancement" of Native Americans–obstacles that could only be overcome by breaking up the reservations and forcing Indians to adopt a more "civilized" lifestyle. Other analysts insist that allotment was never intended to be anything more than a disingenuous legal cover for whites who coveted Indian lands. Whatever the appropriate interpretation of the motivations behind the Dawes Act, the allotment era that the act ushered in is today universally viewed as one of the darkest chapters in the annals of federal-Indian relations. Individual landownership was and is contrary to most traditional Native American beliefs and practices. Moreover, many Indians had no desire to become sedentary farmers and were woefully unprepared and ill equipped to succeed in that occupation even if they had wanted to. The value of the parcels of thousands of allottees was quickly dissipated or lost entirely through tax foreclosures, distressed sales, or unfavorable lease arrangements. Millions of surplus acres were sold or leased away by the government as well, and the ultimate effect of the allotment program was to separate Native Americans from millions of acres of their lands without accomplishing any of the "reforms" intended by the act's proponents.
Mark R. Scherer University of Nebraska at Omaha
Prucha, Francis Paul. The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986.
Washburn, Wilcomb. The Assault on Indian Tribalism: The General Allotment Law (Dawes Act) of 1887. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1975.
Wunder, John R. Retained by the People: A History of American Indians and the Bill of Rights. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.