Study Guide

The Dawes Act of 1887 Analysis

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  • Rhetoric

    Ahhhh, rhetoric: Teachers love to teach it, students groan when forced to study it, but we can all agree that it's important. No matter what we're writing about, when we bother to put pen to paper we're attempting to persuade an audience of some sort to consider what we're talking about. Even the lowliest Buzzfeed listicle is attempting to convince you of something – even if it's just that sloths are adorable.

    So the Dawes Act may seem like three pages of legal jargon, but the people who wrote it were trying to do something. We think they were using two modes of rhetoric: Ethos, and a bit of Logos.


    Ethos is when the rhetor (or the speaker, or author, or writer, what-have-you) is perceived by the audience (in our case: U.S. lawmakers and citizens) as reliable. Now, we all know that different governmental regimes vary in their credibility, but it's pretty much standard that while in power, the government is trying to convince us all that they are the ones we can rely on. After all, they're our elected officials; we certainly hope they know what they're doing.

    So part of the function of all the legal-speak and nit-picking in the Dawes Act is to show how very capable our lawmakers were. They want us to see that they're covering all the bases, and that it's all done in the best interest of the Native Americans. "See? No moral ambiguity here, just good intentions," they're saying. Which brings us to the other rhetorical device that they used: Logos.


    Logos attempts to persuade the audience by the use of arguments that they will perceive as logical and rational. Since the writers of the Dawes Act thought of everything from who gets allotted land, to securing water rights, and how this will affect the law of inheritance, they were laying out a well-reasoned (if misguided) argument. They've thought of everything. Let's pass this bill, baby.

  • Structure

    Legal Document

    The Dawes act is very clearly a legal document. It's written in clear, concise language (well, for lawyers it is…), and in the format used to write just about every law our country has.

    How it Breaks Down

    In our legal document, we have a brief intro, designated sections that are separated by topic or function, and then a lack of a formal conclusion (because that would just be frivolous.)


    The intro does what an intro is supposed to do: it tells us the time, the setting, and the main characters. It even helpfully summarizes the purpose of the act. Dawes was nothing if not efficient.


    The rest of the document is helpfully broken down into numbered sections. Each one covers one topic in its entirety (as much as possible).

    Section 1:

    This includes the introduction and the brief summary of what the Dawes Act is intending to do, namely, allot lands to Native Americans in specific amounts and locations, with accompanying rules.

    Section 2:

    This one covers who gets to pick their allotments, and why. (Hint: The Native Americans do—with help—and for their own benefit.)

    Section 3:

    Section 3 is more like Section 2b, if you ask us, because it just states that the Secretary of the Interior or the President can appoint agents to assist the people in selecting their allotments, as well as where the paperwork will go.

    Section 4:

    This one is making sure that the Dawes Act applies to every Native American, regardless of whether they're already on a reservation or not.

    Section 5:

    This doozy of a section outlines the specifics of who will have what land rights, and how the allotments will be held in trust for the Native Americans for 25 years, or until they think they're going to follow the rules willingly.

    Section 6:

    This one states that everyone on a reservation will now be a U.S. citizen, and thus subject to and benefitting from its laws.

    Section 7:

    Water rights, baby. You got 'em.

    Section 8:

    The Dawes Act goes for everyone except some tribes listed in this section, because they already had a deal with the U.S.

    Section 9:

    Who's gonna pay for all this?

    Section 10:

    P.S. nothing in this act says that Congress can't still grant the right of way through lands granted to an Indian or tribe, as long as they're compensated for it.

    Section 11:

    The Southern Ute tribe gets a special shout-out.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The Dawes Act is less a title than it is a declaration of whom we should blame for this legislation. Henry Dawes was this bill's most vocal proponent and drafter, and thus shoulders the responsibility for all it entails. He didn't choose to name it after himself, it just kind of happened. Like an unfortunate nickname (although he was pretty proud of it at the time).

    Officially, it's also called the General Allotment Act, but that just doesn't have the same ring to it.

  • What's Up With the Opening Lines?

    These guys were all about the details. Here are the opening lines to the Dawes Act:

    Forty-Ninth Congress of the United States of American; At the Second Session, Begun and held at the City of Washington on Monday, the sixth day of December, one thousand eight hundred and eight-six. 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.

    The first few lines summed up the Act into one convenient sentence. It really covers everything; the rest is just details. The "for other purposes" makes this a real page-turner: What other purposes? If we'd been a member of one of the tribes covered by this Act, we'd have bit a little worried after reading that line.

  • What's Up With the Closing Lines?

    Sec. 11. That nothing in this act shall be so construed as to prevent the removal of the Southern Ute Indians from their present reservation in Southwestern Colorado to a new reservation by and with consent of a majority of the adult male members of said tribe.
    Approved, February 8, 1887.

    That doesn't really tie it all up in a neat little bow, does it? Obviously, the framers of the Dawes Act weren't super concerned with writing any type of conclusion.

    The last section feels like someone remembered something last minute and just popped it in, doesn't it? Like, "Whoops! We forgot the Utes, they have that special thing going on in Colorado. Better put something in there about them. Phew. Almost blew that one!" High-fives all around.

  • Shout-Outs

    In-Text References

    Historical and Political References

    Laws of the State of Kansas (Sec. 5)
    Executive Order regarding pre-existing legislation (Sec. 8)

    References to This Text

    Historical and Political References

    Curtis Act 1898
    Dawes Roles
    Dawes Commission

    Pop Cultural References

    At the end of the film Dances with Wolves there's an epilogue that tells us that, 13 years after the events ending the film, the U.S. government finally took control of the Sioux nation. Since the film starts in 1873, could be they're referring to the Dawes Act, give or take a year (source).

  • Brain Snacks

    Dawes was a good buddy of Abraham Lincoln. So good, in fact, that he was a pallbearer at Lincoln's funeral. (Source)

    Dawes and his cronies called the Act the "Indian Magna Carta." We call that some serious confidence, there. (Source)

    There was no legitimate constitutional basis to the Dawes Act. They just kinda made it up as they went and didn't even try to justify it constitutionally. That was pretty par for the course in U.S.-Native American relations. Since the tribes weren't citizens, no need for due process, equal protection, yadda yadda. (Source)

    The Dawes Act is considered directly responsible for the loss of 90 million acres of Indian land. Nine. Tee. Mill. Eeon. (Source)

    The Secretary of the Interior's full name was Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar II. That's right: his dad—who was named after a famous Roman statesman—liked his name so much he decided there needed to be two of them. And you thought your name was embarrassing. (Source)

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