Study Guide

The Dawes Act of 1887 Themes

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

  • Identity

    While land seems to be the primary focus of the Dawes Act, the real objective was to erase the Native American identity and assimilate them into American society. Most were already on reservations, but they were still farming communally, living in villages, and maintaining their traditions, languages, and tribal laws. They were still being American Indians. They needed to be more like the settlers, more white American.

    They had to adopt civilized ways, obey American laws, and farm like regular folks on land they owned individually. This was the only way white Americans could imagine the survival of the Native Americans. At least that's what the Dawes Act implied.

    American Indians fought hard to maintain their identity despite their dwindling population and disappearing ancestral lands. They eventually succeeded: there are 560+ federally recognized tribes today still teaching their cultural heritage to the next generation.

    Sorry, Richard Pratt—you can't "take the Indian out of the man" (source).

    Questions About Identity

    1. If you had to pick one aspect of the Act whose enforcement made the biggest difference to Native American traditions, what would it be? 
    2. What are some of the different ways the Dawes Act enforces "American values" over Native American ones?
    3.  Why was it important that the Native Americans become citizen of the United States? 
    4.  Which of the sections deals most directly with the issue of Native American identity? Why?

    Chew on This

    The American philosophy regarding the Native Americans was "If you can't kill 'em, make 'em join us."

    The hidden agenda of the Dawes Act was economic; the U.S. wanted to get its hands on reservation lands and sell it to white settlers. Erasing Native American identity was a convenient side effect.

  • Power

    One of the reasons the "Indian Problem" was such a big deal was because the American people saw Native Americans as a serious threat to their ability to control the new continent. The tribes' resistance to assimilation (and domination, for that matter) proved to be a real thorn in the American settlers' side, because the burgeoning white population needed more and more land.

    When fighting the powerful Native American tribes and confederations turned out to be a tough gig, we turned to the next logical solution: legislation.

    Let's watch those uncivilized people fight back against that. What do they know about law, anyway?

    Questions About Power

    1. What are some of the ways this Act declares power over the Native Americans? 
    2. What power did the Native Americans have, if any, to fight back against the Dawes Act? 
    3. Which sections specifically outline powers attributed to one individual/agency? Is that important?

    Chew on This

    Americans had always been threatened by the Native American's sovereignty over important areas of land, so the Dawes Act was crafted to take away that power.

    The Dawes Act made it look like receiving an allotment was voluntary. But since unallotted land would be taken by the government, it was actually a huge power play.

  • Choices

    In order for the Dawes Act to have legitimacy and a sense of magnanimity, it needed to adopt a paternalistic approach towards the domination of Native Americans. Everything, you see, was for their betterment. Thus, they were given "choices" throughout the bill, where they could act "towards their own benefit."

    Of course, the Dawes Act had definite ideas about what was for the tribes' benefit, and they stacked the deck against any real choice. Sure, you could decide to accept an allotment—totally up to you—but if you didn't, the land would be sold out from under your tribe to white settlers.

    It was really an illusion of choice, because what kind of choice is it if all the alternatives are set by the government?

    Questions About Choices

    1. Were the Native Americans truly given any choices under the intentions of the Dawes Act? 
    2. Did the American government want the Native Americans to have choices, or just for it to seem like they did?
    3.  Why did the illusion of choice help get the bill passed?

    Chew on This

    The whole point of the Dawes Act was to get the tribes to "choose" assimilation into white American culture.

    When in Rome (or Oklahoma)…

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