In a well-meaning but ultimately flawed attempt to assimilate Native Americans, President Grover Cleveland signs an act to end tribal control of reservations and divide their land into individual holdings.
Named for its chief author, Senator Henry Laurens Dawes from Massachusetts, the Dawes Severalty Act reversed the long-standing American policy of allowing Indian tribes to maintain their traditional practice of communal use and control of their lands. Instead, the Dawes Act gave the president the power to divide Indian reservations into individual, privately owned plots. The act dictated that men with families would receive 160 acres, single adult men were given 80 acres, and boys received 40 acres. Women received no land.
The most important motivation for the Dawes Act was Anglo-American hunger for Indian lands. The act provided that after the government had doled out land allotments to the Indians, the sizeable remainder of the reservation properties would be opened for sale to whites. Consequently, Indians eventually lost 86 million acres of land, or 62 percent of their total pre-1887 holdings.
Still, the Dawes Act was not solely a product of greed. Many religious and humanitarian “friends of the Indian” supported the act as a necessary step toward fully assimilating the Indians into American culture. Reformers believed that Indians would never bridge the chasm between “barbarism and civilization” if they maintained their tribal cohesion and traditional ways. J.D.C. Atkins, commissioner of Indian affairs, argued that the Dawes Act was the first step toward transforming, “Idleness, improvidence, ignorance, and superstition… into industry, thrift, intelligence, and Christianity.”
In reality, the Dawes Severalty Act proved a very effective tool for taking lands from Indians and giving it to Anglos, but the promised benefits to the Indians never materialized. Racism, bureaucratic bungling and inherent weaknesses in the law deprived the Indians of the strengths of tribal ownership, while severely limiting the economic viability of individual ownership. Many tribes also deeply resented and resisted the government’s heavy-handed attempt to destroy their traditional cultures.
Despite these flaws, the Dawes Severalty Act remained in force for more than four decades. In 1934, the Wheeler-Howard Act repudiated the policy and attempted to revive the centrality of tribal control and cultural autonomy on the reservations. The Wheeler-Howard Act ended further transfer of Indian lands to Anglos and provided for a return to voluntary communal Indian ownership, but considerable damage had already been done.