This Day in History, May 8, 1906: The Burke Act passes, more Indigenous-held lands lost

On this day in history, May 8, 1906, Congress passed the Burke Act, which became another vehicle for white settlers to get Indian-owned lands.

Charles Burke (National Photo Company Collection – Library of Congress)

The bill’s namesake was U.S. Rep. Charles Burke, a South Dakota Republican. He would later serve as Commissioner of Indian Affairs for most of the 1920s. He pushed assimilation. “During an inspection of New Mexico pueblos in 1926 Commissioner Burke publicly excoriated the residents as ‘half animals’ because of ‘their pagan religion,’ and he ordered several Indian leaders jailed ‘for violating the Bureau’s religious crimes code,'” Wikipedia said.

To understand the Burke Act of 1906, some context is needed. The Act fits into broader U.S. assimilation policies which worked to shift Native-held lands from communal ownership to individually held property.

Under the Dawes Act of 1887, also known as the General Allotment Act, much communally held Indigenous lands were divided up among individual “allottees.” The U.S government deemed these allottees ‘incompetent’ to handle their own affairs. The government retained legal title to the land as a trustee, according to a Indian Land Tenure Foundation summary. That meant that those Indians had the right to hunt, fish and gather there, but could not sell their land.

The Burke Act amended the Dawes Act and among its provisions, it gave the U.S. Secretary of Interior the right to determine whether individual Indians were competent and capable of managing their own affairs. When deemed competent, their land changed from federal trust status — which doesn’t pay property tax — to “fee-simple ownership,” which does get charged property tax. It also meant those Indians could now sell their land.

Significantly, the Act didn’t require the Secretary of Interior get an Indian’s approval to make this change. The Secretary didn’t even have to notify Indians they were now deemed “competent” and their land’s tax status had changed.

In fact, many Indians weren’t informed of the changes, according to a history posted on the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe’s website. As a result, the Indians deemed “competent” didn’t know they now had to pay property taxes. Their land went into tax delinquency, and it was forcibly sold to pay off the back taxes.

The Dawes Act and amendments such as the Burke Act had a devastating affect on Indian Country. At the time the Dawes Act was passed in 1887, Indian Nations controlled 138 million acres of land, according to the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. By the time the allotment era ended in 1934, Indian-held lands had shrunk to 48 million acres, or a loss of nearly two thirds of what they held less than a half century earlier.

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