The Dawes Act: Addressing America’s “Indian Problem”

by Ann Marie Scheidt
Conscience Bay Meeting


As Americans moved West in the 19th century, they met indigenous peoples who had lived in their path for 15,000 years. The encounter was problematic for both populations, but was defined by the U.S. as “the Indian Problem.” Its solutions reflected the frame of reference and the power dynamic that generated the label.


The first solution, the reservation system, confined indigenous peoples geographically, enabled federal ownership of valuable lands, and allowed mining companies, railroads and settlers to claim land without risking violent resistance. Enforced by the U.S. military, the system allowed indigenous nations to hold land in common – often not in their historical hunting and agricultural domains – and obligated the government to provide support. An unpaid Board of Indian Commissioners, created in 1869, advised on reservation policy and monitored fulfillment of the government’s support obligations.


The post-Civil War acceleration of the Westward Movement energized both land interests and reformers seeking to save the indigenous peoples with Christianity. The annual Lake Mohonk Conference of Friends of the Indians, inaugurated in 1883 by Quaker property owner Albert Smiley, a member of the Board of Commissioners, contributed to the adoption of the “solution” of assimilation. Massachusetts Senator Henry Dawes, a leading Conference member, pressed for the General Allotment Act, which replaced the reservation system with a system of allocations of fixed acreage to individuals.


Individual property ownership was considered the key to indigenous people’s salvation through assimilation into American society. The Commissioner of Indian Affairs wrote in 1838: “Unless some system is marked out by which there shall be a separate allotment of land to each individual . . . you will look in vain for any general casting off of savagism. Common property and civilization cannot co-exist.” A half century later, Dawes and his allies saw their purpose threatened by the relentless westward march. He reported to the 1886 Conference that his failure to enact the legislation, which popularly bears his name, meant “our work must be done now and without delay, for the greed for the Indian's land is growing every day, and it is as impossible to resist it under the forms of our Government as to stop the flow of the river.” Lacking sufficient votes from Friends of the Indians alone, he agreed to allow any land remaining after the allotments were completed to be put up for public sale; land speculator support won passage in 1887. A senator skeptical that federal policy could transform hunters into farmers – even had the lands they were allotted been suitable, and large enough for self-sufficiency – declared “the provisions for the apparent benefit of the Native Americans are but the pretext to get at his lands and occupy them. ... If this were done in the name of Greed, it would be bad enough; but to do it in the name of Humanity ... is infinitely worse.” The amount of land owned by indigenous peoples decreased from 138 million acres in 1887 to 78 million acres in 1900 to 48 million acres in 1934.


The Act provided funds to teach indigenous peoples “Euro-American patterns of thought and behavior” at Indian Service schools. Broadly, contemporary reformers, including Quakers, worked to imprint indigenous cultures with the societal, family and gender relations of 19th century America, in the context of their transformed economic lives.


The “Indian New Deal,” founded on the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, attempted to reverse this half-century of depredation and its underlying point of view by empowering tribal governments and preserving tribal culture. Amendment of a crucial IRA provision enabling the Secretary of the Interior to restore and protect tribal homelands, undermined by a 2002 Supreme Court decision, is the top legislative priority in the current Congress for 26 indigenous organizations.