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The General Allotment Act of 1887 was one of the most important steps in the development of the relationship between Indians and the federal government. It was first proposed as a measure to help the Indian population to become more civilized and educated while at the same time preserving their rights. Nevertheless, the Act was widely seen as a measure of control and assimilation that facilitated the whites’ occupation of the lands native to Indians and affected the culture and lifestyle of the indigenous people. It is still perceived as one of the “forceful and unilateral policies” (Wilkins and Stark xxxiii) that were imposed by federal bureaucrats on the Indians with the sole aim of seizing control of the land and the native populations.
Aims of the Act
According to Wilkins and Stark, the General Allotment Act of 1887 “aimed to absorb Indians into American society by individualizing and then patenting Indian lands into parcels of 160, 80, and 40 acres” (xxxii). It was part of a larger U.S. assimilation policy, which was designed to decrease the cultural and social gap between the Native Americans and the whites (Wilkins and Stark 127). Deloria and Lytle argue that “Allotment redirected the thrust of the federal-Indian relationship to that of property management” (5). To the general white public, the Act was justified by the fact that Indians were seen as incapable of managing their own lands and had to be supervised (Wilkins and Stark xxxiii). Moreover, in order to achieve a certain coherence within the society, it was necessary to ‘enlighten’ Indians, to teach them proper manners and provide mandatory education to ensure that they fit into the new society.
Another goal of the act was the reduction of tribal power. Lawrence and Cooke explain that the issue of tribal sovereignty was a persistent issue for white Americans from 1532 (218). Chang explains that the whites perceived the Indians’ tribal sovereignty was the major factor stopping their peaceful assimilation: “they thought that tribal identification and solidarity impeded the ‘civilization’ of Native people — by which they meant their embrace of Anglo- American culture, family structures, and individualist commercial orientation” (109). Therefore, by breaking up the tribal lands into allotments, the whites hoped to decrease the Indians’ tribal bonds and promote economic individualism, which would enable them to enter the ‘civilized’ state and become part of the newly-formed society.
Finally, on a more practical level, the Allotment Act was needed for the acquisition of Native lands and the reinforcement of the federal authority. Wilkins and Stark claim that the Act has helped to decrease the volume of the territories controlled by tribes from 2 billion acres in 1887 to 150 million acres in 1924 (138). Thus, the three main goals of the Act were the reduction of the tribes’ power, the acquisition of new lands, and the lawful establishment of federal authority over the Indians.
The main provision of the General Allotment Act was that the majority of Indian territories are to be divided into smaller pieces of land and distributed around the people of the local Indian community. Under the Act, the American President was entitled to survey any Indian reservation and to allot its lands to any Indian located within the allotment (General Allotment Act 388). The territories were then to be held in trust by the federal government for a period of 25 years, which was “deemed sufficient for the individual Indian to learn the art of being a civilized yeoman farmer” (Wilkins and Stark 127). After that period, the land was given to the Indian owner, and the government was allowed to impose taxation on the land once it has left its federal status. The territories that were not part of the allotment were deemed ‘surplus’; According to Wilkins and Stark, “this ‘extra’ land was sold to non-Indians, whose settlement among the Indians, it was believed, would expedite their acquisition of white attitudes and behavior” (127).
The government could also buy the surplus land at a price of just $1.25 per acre (Deloria and Lytle 112). Out of the total twenty-three million acres of surplus land, twenty million was sold to whites, leaving four out of every six Indians living in surplus lands landless (Deloria and Lytle 112). Moreover, the money was not paid directly to Indians but held in the government’s treasury, and by the decision of the Congress, it could be spent on the process of civilization and education of individual Indians or their tribes (General Allotment Act 390). The General Allotment Act was also the first law that addressed the citizenship status of the Native population: “In this Act, Indians who received land allotments and those who voluntarily took up residence apart from their tribes were to be granted citizenship” (Wilkins and Stark 44). The five civilized Tribes were initially exempt from the Act. Nevertheless, in 1898 Congress passed the Curtis Act, which provided the Indians with a deadline, by which they had to negotiate an agreement with a special commission regarding the allotment of their lands (Deloria and Lytle 25). In case the Indians did not move to negotiate the allotment, the commission could forcefully move forward with the allotment process, thus promoting the dissolution of the tribal governments (Deloria and Lytle 25).
Effects of the Act
The effects of the General Allotment Act are examined in detail by Chang. The author states that “Prior to undergoing allotment, each tribal nation determined landholding among members as it saw fit, and tribal members held collective title to their national lands as a whole” (Chang 108). The allotment, however, worked to destroy this united identity both through the sale of the lands and through the introduction of whites into the reservation areas: “Allotment combined the making of land into private property and the taking of that private property from Indians” (Chang 108). Thus, two immediate effects of the Act can be seen: the reduction of the tribal power and the acquisition of Indian lands. The vast majority of the Native territories were sold to the government and were soon populated by the whites. Chang claims that over ninety million Native people became landless as a result of the General Allotment Act and its amendments, with about 90% of the Native territories in some areas sold for the benefit of the non-Indians (110). Moreover, the allotment also helped to increase the reach of the federal government’s power without the use of military force that characterized the previous attempts to seize control over the Native population.
Other effects of the General Allotment Act occurred on the social level. For instance, Chang argues that the Act limited the sovereignty of the tribes and the Indian people in general, thus impairing their cultural identity in order to promote political absorption (111). Despite the initial argument that the Allotment would present the Natives with more economic freedom and individuality, it increased the government’s control over the Indian population and allowed the government to dispose of newly acquired lands in any way that was deemed appropriate. As a result of the extensive seizure of land, the use and distribution of natural resources became one of the major topics of concern both for the Federals and for the natives (Deloria and Lytle 5). The supervision imposed by the government on all the Indian populations also caused the expansion of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (Deloria and Lytle 5).
Overall, the Allotment Act did not achieve what it was designed to do. Despite the fact that the government assumed that the distribution of the tribal lands among the individual members in farming tracts would result in the social and economic independence of Indians” (Deloria and Lytle 51-52), the increased government control over the territory and the sale of land caused an opposite situation to occur. The landless Indians were anything but economically independent; moreover, their cultural and tribal identity was affected, which caused another wave of dissatisfaction with the federal government: Deloria and Lytle state that the postwar generation of Indians became overly enthusiastic about self-government, as “it has represented as a step forward from the absolute prostration the tribes suffered […] after the passage of the General Allotment Act” (14). Thus, instead of facilitating the cultural assimilation, the Act had an adverse effect both on the Indian population and on the federal-Indian relationship.
Chang, David. “Enclosures of Land and Sovereignty: the Allotment of American indian lands”. Radical History Review, vol. 109, 2011, pp. 108-119.
Deloria, Vine Jr. and Clifford M. Lytle. The Nations Within: The Past and Future of American Indian Sovereignty. University of Texas Press, 1984.
Lawrence, Adrea and Brec Cooke. “Law, Language, and Land: A Multimethod Analysis of the General Allotment Act and Its Discourses”. Qualitative Inquiry, vol. 16, no. 3, 2009, pp. 217–229.
“Statutes at Large 24”. An Act to Provide for the Allotment of Lands in Severalty to Indians on the Various Reservations (General Allotment Act or Dawes Act). NADP Document, 1887, pp. 388-391.
Wilkins, David Eugene and Heidi Kiiwetinepinesiik Stark. American Indian Politics and the American Political System. 3rd ed., Rowman & Littlefield, 2011.