The Chickasaw and Choctaw, two of the Five Civilized Tribes, become the first to agree to abolish tribal government and communal ownership of land. The other tribes soon followed, finally throwing open all of Indian Territory to white settlement.
Representatives of the Chickasaw and Choctaw tribes had been negotiating the future of their people with the Dawes Commission since 1893. President Grover Cleveland created the Dawes Commission to realize the goals of the 1887 Dawes Severalty Act. Backers of the Dawes Severalty Act believed Indians would be better able to integrate into mainstream society if they abandoned tribal governments and communal ownership of land. Instead, every male Indian received a plot of land to own privately. Any tribal land that remained–which in most cases was a substantial amount–would be open to settlement by Anglo-Americans.
Most Native American tribes were forced to abide by the Dawes Severalty Act regardless of their wishes. However, a treaty from 1830 promised the Five Civilized Tribes living in Oklahoma Indian Territory their land for “as long as the grass grows and water runs,” and the Dawes Act did not apply to them. Instead, the Dawes Commission was formed to convince them to adopt its principles voluntarily.
At the same time, Congress also threatened to make it harder for the Five Civilized Tribes to maintain their traditional ways of life. The Curtis Act, for example, invalidated the authority of all tribal courts. Recognizing that they had little hope of maintaining their old ways, in 1897, the Choctaws and Chickasaws became the first to agree voluntarily to abandon tribal government and land ownership. By 1902, the other three tribes–the Cherokees, Seminoles, and Creeks–had followed suit.
Despite the sincere humanitarian goals of the Dawes Act and Commission, the ultimate effect was to deprive Indians of most of their landholdings. Fraud was rampant, and some Indians either did not know they needed to apply for their private acreage or refused to do so in protest. From 1887 to 1934, Indian landholdings declined from 138 million to 47 million acres. Since the Dawes Act was rescinded in 1934, however, tribal ownership and government have again become legal.