Study Guide

The Dawes Act of 1887 Main Idea

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

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  • Main Idea

    How To Make American Indians "Good American Citizens"

    Here's the gist of what this Act is saying. (Bear with us; it's not pretty.)

    The only way those stubborn Native Americans can survive is to break up the reservations and assimilate them into American society with a path to citizenship. The government will give them the chance to farm and own some reservation land privately—hands off, tribes—and they'll recognize the benefits of this more civilized way of life. And if there's any reservation land left over after allotting it to individuals, it's ours. For a fair price, of course.

    And P.S. We can still run railroads through your new property it if we think it would be for the common good. This is a one-time offer, folks—call in the next fifteen minutes for your 160 acres.

    Questions About Main Idea

    1. Which do you think was more important to the framers of this law: That the Native Americans have land on which to live/farm, or how they live/farm on said land. What are some key phrases that might give away their priorities?
    2. The Dawes Act somehow came up with one section per Native American = 160 acres. What were some of the factors that probably went into choosing this amount of land?
    3. What's with the obsession over "riparian rights?" Why would these be pretty important?
    4. Which Native American tribes were excluded from this Act? Why?

    Chew on This

    The Dawes Act was all about laying the groundwork for eradicating and/or subjugating the Native American way of life, legally and in such a way as to conceal its intent.

    Dawes really wanted what was best for the tribes; his Eurocentric perspective just made it impossible to think that Native American culture was as good as his.

  • Brief Summary

    The Set-Up

    The government needed some way of obtaining Native American land for all the white settlers that were heading west, while forcing the tribes to assimilate into American culture. They needed a way to do that without looking like bad guys. The Dawes Act, with its misleadingly philanthropic-sounding program of individual land allotments, was the answer.

    The Text

    First and foremost, the Dawes Act wanted to establish the fact that tribes were going to have to live on designated amounts of land within the reservations. This would not only force them to give up the prime farmlands to white settlers, but it would make it necessary for them to abandon their traditional, communal agricultural methods for the American/European farming model (i.e., for one's own personal profit).

    Any land left over after this generous allotment was now available for the government to purchase from the Native Americans, conveniently opening up even more land for the people playing the real-life version of The Oregon Trail.


    We're gonna break up the reservation land and give it to individual Native Americans in the hope that they'll become just like the rest of us and give up their primitive tribal ways in exchange for U.S. citizenship. If there's any land left, we'll be happy to take it off your hands. PS: members of the Five Civilized Tribes need not apply.

  • Questions

    1. Why were certain tribes exempt from the Dawes Act? 
    2. How was one section =160 acres determined? What makes that the magic amount of land one person could live off of? 
    3. How do they prove that a deal is "in the best interests" of the Native Americans in question? It's pretty subjective, right? 
    4. What made the situation different in 1887 from earlier eras where the reservation strategy was satisfactory to the U.S. government? 
    5. Was the writing on the wall for the American Indians even before the Dawes Act? Things weren't exactly getting better for the tribes over the years. 
    6. Do you think there'd be any benefits for Native Americans to be assimilated into mainstream American culture? 
    7. Isn't American citizenship what all immigrants want? Oh, wait. They weren't immigrants. We were. 
    8. Why was the Dawes Act able to ignore the issue of tribal sovereignty? 
    9. Why couldn't we all just get along? (No…really. Why?)

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