This Day in History (Feb. 8, 1887): Dawes Act Forces Assimilation, Leads to Massive Indian Land Theft

On this day in history, Congress passed the Dawes Act which both forced indigenous peoples to assimilate into a system of private property ownership and effectively stole millions of acres of what should have been treaty-protected lands.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The Dawes Act allowed the government to divide up communally held reservation lands into individual parcels, up to 160 acres for a head of household, according to Wikipedia.

The law’s deceit was that there was plenty of acreage left over  after individual allotments were made. The law allowed the government sell off this so-called “surplus” land.

The poster to the right says it all.

For more, check out this Indian Country Today article: Native History: Dawes Act Signed Into Law to ‘Civilize’ Indians.

The act was named after Massachusetts Congressman Henry Dawes, who declared that “private property had the power to civilize,” the article said. It continued: “To be civilized, [Dawes] said, was to “wear civilized clothes, cultivate the ground, live in houses, ride in Studebaker wagons, send children to school, drink whiskey (and) own property.”

The Dawes Act would not be reversed for nearly 50 years. In 1934, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Indian Reorganization Act. During that time, Native nations sustained massive economic losses. According to the Indian Country Today article, between 1887 and 1934, Native nations lost 90 million acres, “or about two-thirds of the 1887 land base.”


The Minnesota-based Indian Land Tenure Foundation writes that the Dawes Act: “had devastating consequences for Indian people that still endure today.” One of those impacts is “checkerboarding.”

As the Foundation explains, once intact reservation lands are now broken among multiple different owners. “Trust lands, fee lands, and lands owned by tribes, individual Indians and non-Indians are mixed together on the reservation, creating a checkerboard pattern.” It continues:

Checkerboarding seriously impairs the ability of Indian nations or individual Indians to use land to their own advantage for farming, ranching, or other economic activities that require large, contiguous sections of land. It also hampers access to lands that the tribe owns and uses in traditional ways.

The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe in northern Minnesota is one extreme example of the Dawes Act’s damage. The Leech Lake Band and individual allotees own a mere 4 percent of the land within their historic reservation boundaries, according to a 2015 presentation by Cris Stainbrook, president of the Indian Land Tenure Foundation.

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