Some say the Dawes Act of 1887 – also known as the General Allotment Act – was forged out of greed and avarice. Others claim the federal government legislation was motivated by humanitarianism and the belief that it was best for Native people to assimilate into European-American society. One thing we know for certain is this: Allotment stole vast quantities of valuable land from Native people, left them the least desirable ground available, and destroyed Indian families and communities for generations to come.
The stated purpose of the Dawes Act was to assimilate Indigenous people into white society. Natives who agreed to leave reservations and take up farming of their allotted lands were to be granted U.S. citizenship. Even though most tribes had no concept of private land ownership – for centuries land had been communally owned and its bounty shared with everyone – individual ownership of land for European-style subsistence farming was seen as the key to resolving the “Indian problem.” Supporters of the Act believed that by becoming U.S. citizens, Natives would abandon their “uncivilized” ways and become self-supporting members of American society who would no longer need government supervision and assistance. It’s not as though the Natives had a choice. They were going to be settler-style capitalists come what may.
In the end, allotment undermined virtually every aspect of Indian life and culture. The social bonds of life in tribal communities were shattered. Families were torn apart as they struggled for survival amidst the new economic realities. Many Natives lost their allotted land to unscrupulous settlers who grabbed it for themselves through whatever means necessary. Indians who stayed on the reservation endured generational poverty and ill health. The societal toll was immeasurable and it continues to this day.
Upending traditional family structures
When looking at allotment, most have focused on the loss of land which was devastating. What often gets neglected is the impact on families. Allotment forced families to operate in unfamiliar ways favored by Anglo-American settlers. Men were to earn wages outside the home; women were expected to tend to domestic matters and raise their biological children. This ran counter to traditional Indian family and kinship norms which provided gendered and spiritual significance to specific duties, namely that women farm, gather, and produce necessities of life while men fished and hunted for subsistence. This is where the stereotype originated of the lazy Indian man and the drudging Indian woman, a racist trope that proliferated widely across Anglo-American communities.
Because Indigenous peoples organized their societies according to kinship, with an emphasis on relationships within the extended family, academics, federal officials, and others seeking to reform the Indian family believed these social systems were inherently dysfunctional. These reformers believed that fracturing extended kinship relationships into nuclear families by subdividing communally-held Indian land would increase the likelihood of assimilation. When allotment became official federal policy in 1887, it came along with forced restructuring of Indian community with the men now in charge of farming and working the land while the women managed the household and children.
The impact was significant. In annual reports produced by the Bureau of Indian Affairs from 1911 to 1934, data on direct measures of assimilation were routinely published. In addition to school attendance, data on the number of “church-going Indians” and those “wearing civilized dress” were published. As the pace of allotment hastened, the number of Natives falling into the aforementioned categories increased in lock-step with the changes in land ownership.
Because adult males were now considered to be the rightful head of the household, a wife who had spent her entire adult life with her husband on a particular allotment no longer had any rights to that land. Her allotted land might be located a long distance away, but once the husband died the rights to the use the land where the family had made their home for the better part of 30 years would belong to his male descendants, and the wife would be forced to leave.
In the end, allotment undermined virtually every aspect of Indian life and culture.
In the end, the primary goal of allotment for European settlers was achieved. Millions of acres of land on Indian reservations were handed over to white settlers. Over a 50-year period, nearly two-thirds of the 150 million acres of land that Indian tribes owned in 1887 were transferred to non-Indians. The secondary purpose – assimilation of Indian people into European-American society – was an abject failure for which we are still paying a very steep price. Rather than lifting Natives out of poverty, the General Allotment Act made their conditions even worse. Most Indian land was of poor quality, and without access to funds for the purchase of equipment, animals or seed, success in agriculture for Native people was highly unlikely. The notion that Indian people could be forced into an agrarian society in this way was naive at best, but more likely driven by paternalistic racism and extreme greed. Either way the outcome has been disastrous.