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There's surprisingly little information on Senator Henry Dawes. Other than the fact that he sponsored legislation that irrevocably changed the lives of Native Americans in our country, we don't know a whole lot about him except the basic facts.
Dawes was born in 1816 in a small town in Massachusetts. After graduating from Yale, he went back to Greenfield, Massachusetts to teach and edit a local newspaper. He opened a law practice in North Adams, Massachusetts in 1842 but kept one hand in the newspaper biz.
Writing about politics must have got him interested in jumping into the fray, and he was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1848 and to the state senate in 1850. After a stint as a U.S. District Attorney, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and stayed there for 23 years. He became a good buddy of President Lincoln, and when Lincoln was assassinated, Dawes was one of the pallbearers at his funeral (source).
As one of the senior members of the House, he authored several pieces of anti-slavery and Reconstruction legislation during Civil War times. Good guy stuff. You can also thank him for Weather.gov—he started a program for the government to issue daily weather reports so everyone knew whether they should throw on a pair of long johns under their breeches.
In 1875, the Massachusetts legislature sent Dawes to the U.S. Senate (that's how senators were elected until 1913). It was as a senator that he helped usher through his eponymous Act.
We're left to determine Dawes's interests and his character by analyzing what he did—in his case, the legislation that he crafted. One thing it tells us for sure is that he was very preoccupied with solving the "Indian Problem." Almost his entire career was focused on the relocation of tribes and negotiating with them to accept the terms of various agreements. But what was his motivation?
Warren G. Sayre, one of the commissioners of the Jerome Commission (a group dedicated to figuring out "legal" ways of buying off the lands belonging to the Native Americans for non-indigenous settlers), thought that Dawes had the purest of intentions:
[he] made it his business to study the Indian Question and always in the interest of the Indians and not in the interest of the Government or the white man (source).
So, hmm. Here we are in the 21st century, reading the Dawes Act thinking he's some evil mastermind that constructed dastardly ways of legally sticking it to the Native Americans, but was he actually concerned about their well-being? Was it really in their interest to become private property owners and assimilate into American Christian culture?
Well, maybe he thought it was. As a chairman on the Committee on Indian Affairs, he was pretty vocal about his concerns that the American Indian was disappearing, and that the tribes might cease to exist. He thought his plan would ensure their ability to survive in the new American style; he just didn't foresee the fact that it would actually eradicate their way of life and cost them zillions of acres of their land.
Besides, it was hard for white people back then (still is but at least some of us know it), to get out of the mindset that the European culture is the only good one. If you were someone in the late 1800s worried about the continued existence of the indigenous peoples, you probably thought that their best bet was to get with the program—the American program, that is. You know—capitalism, English language, Christianity, Levis.
The U.S. government had already had a pretty dismal track record of predicting what was in the Native Americans' best interest. President Andrew Jackson, whose nickname was "Indian Killer," thought that forcibly relocating the tribes in the southern U.S. from their homes to the western territories would be the best thing that ever happened to them. So in 1830, that's what he did. For their own good, of course. That benevolent gesture resulted in the "Trail of Smiles"—um, we mean the "Trail of Tears".
So the Dawes Act of 1887 was one in a long line of U.S. government actions against the tribes and their culture, disguised as benevolent gestures. Tribal lands held communally were allotted to individual Native Americans with the incentive of U.S. citizenship if they could become successful farmers and assimilate into American culture. They'd even be given priority for government jobs. Land not allotted was the property of—you guessed it—the U.S. guv'mint, who sold it to white settlers. And with the Native Americans assimilated and "civilized," the government wouldn't have to spend money to oversee their affairs.
Trouble was, the land that was distributed often turned out to be unsuitable for farming. Most of the "allottees" had little idea how to manage private property or farm the land as individual owners. The whole plan was destined to fail.
You know what they say about the road to hell being paved with good intentions. Poor Henry Dawes is Exhibit A.
After leaving the Senate in 1893, he became the chairman of the Commission to the Five Civilized Tribes (aka the Dawes Commission). For ten years he negotiated with the tribes to accept the Dawes Act. Sure, this meant that the tribes had to accept the extinction of communal farming, and they had to give up their tribal governments and sovereignty, and oh, about two-thirds of their land, but it was giving them a chance to assimilate and become U.S. citizens.
Because hindsight is 20/20, we can see how harmful these efforts were because we can see the damage it did to the Native American way of life. Dawes thought he was fighting for the tribes' continued existence and helping them survive American expansion. Lots of other people did, too. Here's an excerpt from his obit in New York Times obit in 1903:
The Senator became earnestly interested in the plan of rescuing the affairs of the Indians from the desperate and shameful condition into which they had fallen, and it was largely due to his efforts that the policy was adopted of dividing the Indian lands in severalty and gradually changing the Indians from members of tribes dependent on the Government to citizens capable of self-support. To this he devoted the latter part of his life, and the service he rendered was very great and most unselfish (source).
You might be wondering if the Times' rose-colored glasses are a result of historical white-washing. You'd have a point. But considering the antislavery legislation he wrote as a congressman, could it be that the Dawes Act was actually an effort to protect another vulnerable minority group, misguided as the effort was? And if you look at the one other thing he's known for doing, it shows that he might have been a conservationist at heart.
About ten years before the "Indian question" became his thing, he was an ardent supporter of the creation of Yellowstone National Park in order to preserve its wilderness and resources. He supported federal financing of the geological survey that was a driving force in the creation of the park, and he even named the first commercial boat on Yellowstone Lake after his daughter, Annie (source).
At least he managed to save one precious resource.