This Day in History 1887: A Major Assault on Native Land and Lifeways

On this day in history, February 8, 1887, the U.S. Congress passed the Dawes Act, perhaps the most significant single piece of legislation to force American Indians to assimilate to western culture. Also known as the General Allotment Act, this law had at least two major lines of attack.

First, it enforced the concept of private land ownership. Tribes held their lands in common. The Dawes Act broke reservation lands into smaller tracts of 40 acres to 160 acres and allotted it to individuals and families.

Second, tribes lost massive amounts of land under the Dawes act, lands that were opened for white settlement. The Indian Land Tenure Foundation explains:

If the amount of reservation land exceeded the amount needed for allotment, the federal government could negotiate to purchase the land from the tribes and sell it to non-Indian settlers. As a result, 60 million acres were either ceded outright or sold to the government for non-Indian homesteaders and corporations as “surplus lands.”

For comparison, the land loss was larger than the state of Minnesota (which is the 12th largest state in the nation, and has approximately 56 million acres of land and water.) Some estimates of Native land loss are higher. An Indian Country Today 2012 article headlined: The Dawes Act Started the U.S. Land-Grab of Native Territory put the loss at 90 million acres, or two-thirds of all Native-held lands prior to the Dawes Act.

The article said:

The Dawes Act was one of the most effective implementations of the colonial and imperialist strategy against Indigenous Peoples of divide-and-conquer—a strategy that combines political, military and economic tactics to gain power over another power by breaking it up into individual units that are powerless to resist domination. It was also an act of lawfare—a relatively new term for an old phenomenon: warfare by legal means. It makes “what was illegal legal,” according to Philip Giraldi, a writer and former CIA military intelligence officer.

TPT offered the following nugget about the bill’s author, Congressman Henry Dawes.

[Dawes] once expressed his faith in the civilizing power of private property with the claim that to be civilized was to “wear civilized clothes…cultivate the ground, live in houses, ride in Studebaker wagons, send children to school, drink whiskey [and] own property.”


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