The Dawes Act of 1887 was a part of the federal policy during the reservation era to speed the assimilation of Indians into American society. The Dawes Act was designed to benefit Native Americans by improving their living conditions. On the other hand, the law was an effort to deprive Indians of lands that they owned by virtue of their reservations.
With high unemployment, poverty, despair, and alcoholism, rampant on most reservations, the government realized that the reservation system was a costly failure. Some officials felt that the problem was that the reservation was owned by the tribe and not by individual Indians. It was believed that if Individual Indians could own their land, they would have the incentive to farm it and raise livestock on it.
In response to growing support, the US Congress passed the Dawes Act in 1887.
The Act was named after its drafter, Henry Laurens Dawes, a Senator from Massachusetts. The Dawes Act of 1887 was also referred to as the General Allotment Act because it dealt with the allotment of Indian lands. The law decided to register the areas of Native American tribes and divide them into private allotments that could be farmed, sold, or leased by owners.
Indians who agreed to live separately from the tribe on the registered site, could obtain citizenship of the US living and working like other non-Indian citizens. Moreover, under the Act, each Indian head of the family would be given a hundred and sixty acres to do with as he wished. The allotment would be held in trusteeship by the government for their Indian owners for a period of 25 years.
The primary goal of the Dawes Act was to improve the living conditions of Native Americans and to promote their assimilation. In this case, the individualization of farms seemed a significant political step. The Act also allowed the state to occupy the remaining land after distribution and sell it to non-native Americans. Surplus Indian land was advertised for sale on posters and in newspapers throughout the country, starting the land rush in western states.
At first, many Indians were puzzled and amused with the idea of being given land that was rightfully theirs. Indian tribes did not understand how the government could provide them with the property when Indians had already owned it. The government had never bought it from Indian tribes or their forefathers.
The General Allotment Act was a scheme to take Indian land. While the Act was presented as that would benefit Indians, it actually benefited white citizens. As a result, the Dawes Act was not successful in terms of the improvement of the living conditions of Native Americans. Indian tribes lost over 60 million acres of land between 1887 and 1934. The Act that was intended to bring Indians into mainstream America was a failure.
In the 1950s, the government encouraged Native Americans to leave the poverty of reservation life and relocate to the nation’s cities where they would receive one month’s training and a good job. The relocation program was an effort of the government to move Indians into urban areas and off of their reservations. A few Indians were successful in making the transition to city life.
Most of them wound up living in the same sort of poverty they had hoped to escape on the reservation. Moreover, Indians faced prejudice in the cities from people who did not want them there. Accordingly, the Dawes Act can be considered as a federal government’s attack on tribalism that is the Indians’ identification as sovereign peoples who have these communal identities rooted in their reservation lands.