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What Is the Dawes Act?

By Leo Zimmermann
Updated Jan 21, 2024
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The Dawes Act, also called the General Allotment Act, was a law passed in 1887 by the United States federal government to regulate Native American land. It enables the government to take certain collectively owned reservations and divide them up into separately owned lots. This law resulted in the creation of the Dawes Rolls, which the government used to perform a relatively full accounting of the native population in certain areas. The bill was explicitly meant to help Native Americans assimilate into society.

The bill does not specify which reservations it affects. Instead, it gives power to the government, through executive decision, treaty, or further act of Congress, to designate lands as subject to allotment. In practice, the Bureau of Indian Affairs seems to have had fairly complete control over the process. The Dawes Act also exempts a number of specific tribes; however, many of these were brought under its purview by later amendments.

The Dawes Act was described as benevolent when it passed. Indeed, it was publicly framed as a response to Helen Hunt Jackson's Century of Dishonor, a book describing various injustices perpetrated against American Indians. Jackson published the book in 1881 and distributed copies throughout Congress.

The Act was supposed to help Indians survive in the modern world and protect them from white settlers attempting to encroach on their land. Unsurprisingly, however, modern historians describe it as mostly bad for the people it affected. Dividing communal land into individual lots disrupted a traditional way of life that revolved around activities like hunting. It is also argued that the Act distributed land unfairly and without regard to the well-being of recipients.

There were also reports of major corruption and abuse within the Bureau of Indian Affairs. A study released in 1928, known as the Meriam Report, confirmed suspicions that reservation dwellers had been deprived of their best land and forced to resettle in areas where it was very difficult to make a living. According to the Meriam Report, the Dawes Act had not even been successful at promoting assimilation.

The Dawes Act disrupted native culture in other ways, as well. By designating plots of land according to social status, it imposed a model inherited from the European socioeconomic system. For example, by designating men as heads of households, it deprived women of the status and power they had once held. Essentially, it promoted a European approach to marriage and family.

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Discussion Comments
By Glasis — On Jan 27, 2014

Sadly, it's no surprise that people who would move into someone else's home and not only claim it for their own but fight anyone who got in their way would make a law that forces the natives to live under the new world order, so to speak.

It would be interesting to find out if any of the positive results ever supposedly intended by the framers of the Dawes Act of 1877 ever came to pass. My guess is no.

By Telsyst — On Jan 26, 2014

It is a shame that our forefathers felt it was necessary to transition the Native American populations into their new society, like prisoners are eased back into the general population.

The reservations were the Native Americans' homes, and there must have been a sense of loyalty to specific tribes and locations like we have today to our hometowns or states.

Who asked the settlers to help the Native Americans fit better into society?

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