Study Guide

The Dawes Act of 1887 Compare and Contrast

By Henry Laurens Dawes / The Forty-Ninth Congress of the United States of America

  • Curtis Act of 1898

    Alert Shmoopers will recall that the "Five Civilized Tribes"—the Choctaw, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Muscogee, and Seminole—were exempt from the Dawes Act. These tribes had originally lived in the southeastern U.S. but were removed to "Indian Territory," in present day Oklahoma, by the aptly named Indian Removal Act of 1830.

    They were "civilized" because they'd adopted a lot of European customs and beliefs in the early days of the U.S. Many converted to Christianity and participated in the American economy. Some of them were so acculturated that they had Black slaves and built plantations just like southern whites.

    The author of the Curtis Act, Kansas congressman Charles Curtis, was of mixed European-Native American ancestry. He thought the Act would better the lives of the tribes—the official name Congress gave it was "Act for the Protection of the People of Indian Territory"—
    but by the time the Act got through Congress, he probably didn't recognize it.

    The Curtis Act extended the provisions of the Dawes Act to the Five Civilized Tribes. It broke up their communal governments, abolished their courts, and made allotments of their lands. Between the Dawes and Curtis Acts, the tribes lost jurisdiction over about 90 million acres of their property. It left it to the U.S. government—via a Commission headed by none other than Henry Dawes—to decide who was and was not a tribal member. The Act basically finished what the Dawes Act started (source).

    The reason for all this? The U.S. was getting ready to create the new state of Oklahoma by combining the Oklahoma Territory with the Indian territory that was designated before the Civil War. By effectively destroying the Native Americans' tribal governments and claims to the lands, the way was clear for admitting Oklahoma to the Union.

    The Five Civilized Tribes in Indian Territory proposed creating a state of their own, but you can guess how well that went over in Washington. In 1907, Oklahoma became the 46th state of the Union (source).

    OK.

  • Burke Act of 1906

    Could it get any worse for the Native Americans?

    Yes.

    The Dawes Act offered U.S. citizenship to tribal members who accepted the individual allotments of land carved out of their territory, allotments that were held in trust by the government for 25 years. The Burke Act gave the Secretary of the Interior the power to decide if individual Native Americans were competent to handle their own affairs and merit citizenship. He could also decide who were worthy to become heirs to the land, because, obvs, Native Americans weren't capable of determining this by themselves without the helpful supervision of the U.S. government.

  • Tecumseh of the Shawnee People Speaks (1811)

    Throughout our study of the Dawes Act, the Native Americans have been pretty voiceless, don't you think? That's not by our design, but by history's; as they say, it's usually the winners who write history.

    Our history has been written by the white men who "conquered" the Native Americans. While in retrospect we've been able to analyze all of the places where we went wrong, many Native American voices were permanently silenced. Luckily, though, some of their greatest voices were preserved, and we're able to see exactly how some of the tribes felt about the whole situation.

    In 1811 a famous Shawnee leader named Tecumseh spoke to a gathering of Choctaws and Chickasaws in order to try to persuade them to unite with his tribe to fight the invading settlers. His speech is not only eloquent and impassioned, but it's emotionally hard to read 300 years later, knowing what we know now. He wrote:

    But what need is there to speak of the past? It speaks for itself and asks, "where today is the Pequot? where the Narragansetts, the Mohawk, Pocanokets, and many other once powerful tribes of our race?" They have vanished before the avarice and oppression of the white men, as snow before a summer sun. In the vain hope of alone defending their ancient possessions, they have fallen in the wars with the white men. Look abroad aver their once beautiful country, and what you see now? Naught but ravages of the pale-face destroyers meet your eyes. So it will be with you Choctaws and Chickasawa! Soon your mighty forest trees, under the shade of whose wide spreading branches you have played in infancy, sported in boyhood, and now rest your wearied limbs after the fatigue of the chase, will be cut down to fence in the land which the white intruders dare to call it their own. Soon their broad roads will pass over the graves of your fathers, and the place of their rest will be blotted out forever. The annihilation of our race is at hand unless we unite in common cause against one common foe (source).

    It's like he could actually see the future. Eerie, isn't it? Eerie, and really, really depressing.

  • President Andrew Jackson's Message to Congress on Indian Removal (1830)

    President Andrew Jackson's most lasting legacy involves his handling of the "Indian Problem." (Well, that and something about the National Bank, but that's not the topic at hand here.)

    In fact, Jackson's so knee-deep in the "Indian Problem" that he gets credit for the disastrous Trail of Tears because he laid the groundwork for the forcible removal of the well-established tribes of the southeastern states to land west of the Mississippi. Like Dawes, Jackson thought that removal was necessary for the survival and well-being of the Native Americans.

    Jackson had some pretty strong views about the American Indians and their proper place in society. In an address to Congress the same year he signed the Indian Removal Act into law, he said:

    The consequences of a speedy removal will be important to the United States, to individual States, and to the Indians themselves. The pecuniary advantages which it promises to the Government are the least of its recommendations. It puts an end to all possible danger of collision between the authorities of the General and State Governments on account of the Indians. It will place a dense and civilized population in large tracts of country now occupied by a few savage hunters. By opening the whole territory between Tennessee on the north and Louisiana on the south to the settlement of the whites it will incalculably strengthen the southwestern frontier and render the adjacent States strong enough to repel future invasions without remote aid. It will relieve the whole State of Mississippi and the western part of Alabama of Indian occupancy, and enable those States to advance rapidly in population, wealth, and power. It will separate the Indians from immediate contact with settlements of whites; free them from the power of the States; enable them to pursue happiness in their own way and under their own rude institutions; will retard the progress of decay, which is lessening their numbers, and perhaps cause them gradually, under the protection of the Government and through the influence of good counsels, to cast off their savage habits and become an interesting, civilized, and Christian community. (source)

    Does the whole "it's in the best interests of the Indian" argument sound familiar? Was the obliteration of Native American culture really done from a philanthropic desire to help the backwards savages? The answer is: yup. At least on paper it was. But just read between the lines when you see the words "rude," "savage," and later on, "red man," and you'll see the prejudice shining through. You'll also see the U.S. government positively salivating at the thought of all that fertile land opening up for farming. To add insult to injury, that land would develop into plantations relying on slave labor.

    President Jackson ended his self-congratulatory speech by saying:

    Rightly considered, the policy of the General Government toward the red man is not only liberal, but generous. He is unwilling to submit to the laws of the States and mingle with their population. To save him from this alternative, or perhaps utter annihilation, the General Government kindly offers him a new home, and proposes to pay the whole expense of his removal and settlement.

    Gee, and the red man didn't even say "thank you."

  • 1934 Indian Organization Act (Wheeler-Howard Act)

    The Dawes Act provisions continued for almost 50 years, resulting in the fractionation of the allotments to the point of ridiculousness—hundreds, even thousands, of heirs of the original allottees co-owning tiny tracts of land and earning next to nothing on what that land was worth.

    FDR's Commissioner of Indian Affairs, John Collier, decided that it was high time to stop trying to destroy Native American culture by encouraging them to assimilate into American society. He saw the financial and cultural devastation this program had visited on the tribes and wanted to give back sovereignty to manage their lands and reconnect with their cultural traditions.

    The Wheeler-Howard Act stopped all future allotments, and prohibited any individual holding one to sell to anyone except a tribe member. It gave un-allotted tribal land back to the reservation of the tribe that was living there. And it made that land tax-exempt.

    Oklahoma was a sad exception. It's not that Collier had anything against Oklahoma—in fact, he was a huge Hugh Jackman fan—it's just that there was no reservation left.

    The act gave the Secretary of the Interior a budget to use to help with economic projects on the reservations, and allowed him to set up new reservations if requested by a recognized tribe. Tribal councils would be allowed to write their own constitutions, and neither Congress or any other government agency could make policies that would affect the privileges of the tribes (source).

    It was a first step towards the U.S. government recognizing that Native American culture was worth preserving, and that the Native American nations could act as sovereign nations with minimal interference from the feds.

  • Richard Nixon's Special Message to the Congress on Indian Affairs (1970)

    In the 1950s and 60s, the official U.S. policy towards the Native Americans was "Indian Termination." That's exactly what they meant: no more tribes. In 1970 President Richard Nixon had some (okay, many) ideas about how to start changing that and repairing the relationship with Native Americans on reservations. He wanted to solve some of the economic issues that stemmed from the legislation creating such places.

    In a lengthy speech he gave to Congress, he outlined some of these ideas, which we'll do our best to summarize for you without making you go cross-eyed. (Excuse any typos, as we still haven't recovered from reading the speech ourselves.)

    Basically, he starts out by acknowledging that he is not a crook. No, wait, wrong speech. Let's see here…oh right, he starts by outlining what the problem is:

    The first Americans - the Indians - are the most deprived and most isolated minority group in our nation. On virtually every scale of measurement - employment, income, education, health - the condition of the Indian people ranks at the bottom.

    This condition is the heritage of centuries of injustice. From the time of their first contact with European settlers, the American Indians have been oppressed and brutalized, deprived of their ancestral lands and denied the opportunity to control their own destiny. Even the Federal programs which are intended to meet their needs have frequently proven to be ineffective and demeaning (source).

    He couldn't be referring to the Dawes Act, could he? Well…not directly. But he'd be right if he was including it in the long list of Federal programs that were supposedly in the Native American's best interests but ended up failing them miserably.

    He then goes on to list all the ways in which some of these programs could be improved. He coins the phrase "Self-Determination Without Termination", which means that he wants the Native Americans to be able to make more decisions for themselves, without the fear of much-needed Federal grants fading into oblivion.

    His speech was definitely a step in the right direction, and launched several legislative successes that improved life on the reservation. It didn't solve all their problems (far, far from it), but it's a vast improvement over the patronizing speeches that were written in the 19th century.

  • Indian Land Consolidation Program

    By the late 20th century, those lands allotted to individual Native Americans had been divided zillions of times among heirs to the land. For example, in a court ruling about the problem, here's the fate of one of the original tracts:

    Tract 1305 is 40 acres, and produces $1,080 in income annually. It is valued at $8,000. It has 439 owners, one-third of whom receive less than $.05 in annual rent and two-thirds of whom receive less than $1. The largest interest holder receives $82.85 annually. The common denominator used to compute fractional interests in the property is 3,394,923,840,000. The smallest heir receives $.01 every 177 years. If the tract were sold (assuming the 439 owners could agree) for its estimated $8,000 value, he would be entitled to $.000418. The administrative costs of handling this tract are estimated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs at $17,560 annually(source).

    Talk about a broken system.

    In 1983, in an attempt to solve the problem, the government passed the Indian Land Consolidation Act. Under this Act, those tiny fractionated allotments would not be passed down to heirs; they'd revert to tribal ownership if the value was under a certain amount; the tribes were given some authority about what would happen to this land. The Act was amended a bunch of times to tighten up the definition of "Indian" and to set some conditions on the reverted lands. In 2000, the government specifically stated the goals of the program:

    It is the policy of the United States— (1) to prevent the further fractionation of trust allotments made to Indians; (2) to consolidate fractional interests and ownership of those interests into usable parcels; (3) to consolidate fractional interests in a manner that enhances tribal sovereignty; (4) to promote tribal self-sufficiency and self-determination; and (5) to reverse the effects of the allotment policy on Indian tribes (source).

    The final result of all the amendments was the 2012 creation of the Indian Land Consolidation Program, which authorized the U.S. government to buy back these fractionated parcels and give them back to the tribes who had jurisdiction over that land only if the individuals who owned them would be willing to sell them for fair-market value (source).

    The program was designed to last for ten years. As of 2017, the program had spent $1.3 billion, but it isn't clear if it made a dent on the problem. In May 2017, the acting Secretary of the Interior said,

    "I view the Buy-Back Program as a once in a lifetime opportunity to meaningfully address fractional interests that plague tribal communities and their efforts towards sovereignty and self-determination. [I]n my mind we are almost back where we started eight years later, just treading water" (source).

    Stay tuned, Shmoopers. The last chapter in this history has yet to be written.

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