Life on the Reservations

American Indians found life to be difficult after being forced off their native lands. Beginning in 19th century the federal policy dictated certain tribes be confined to fixed plots to continue their traditional ways of life.

Besides the moral issue of depriving people of life on their historic land, economic issues plagued the reservation. Nomadic tribes lost their means of subsistence by being constricted to a defined area. Farmers had land unsuitable for agriculture. Hostile tribes were often forced into the same areas and the results were disastrous.

Faced with disease, alcoholism, and despair on the reservations, Federal officials introduced the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887. Each Native American family was offered 160 acres of tribal land to own. The land could not be sold for 25 years, but these new landowners could farm it for profit. Congress hoped this system would end the dependency of tribes on the federal government, enable individually prosperity, and assimilate the Indians into mainstream American life. After 25 years, participants would become American citizens.

The Dawes Act was widely resisted. Tribal leaders feared the loss of communal land. Individuals who did try this new way of life, were often unsuccessful. They lacked the expertise for this type of farming. They still depended on the government for assistance.

Many saw the Dawes Act as a way to ‘civilize’ the Native Americans. Visiting missionaries attempted to convert the Indians to Christianity, although they found few new believers.

Land not allotted to individual landholders was sold to railroad companies and settlers from the East. They set up schools from the proceeds. Native American children were required to attend the established reservation school. The schools often forced the pupils to dress like eastern Americans and were given shorter haircuts.

The Dawes Act was a disaster for tribal units. In 1900, land held by Native American tribes was half that of 1880. Land holdings continued to dwindle in the early 20th century. When the Dawes Act was repealed in 1934, alcoholism, poverty, illiteracy, and suicide rates were higher for Native Americans than any other ethnic group in the United States.

Source: Life on the Reservations
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