The Dawes Act

The Dawes Act authorized the U.S. president to subdivide tribal reservations into private parcels of land to be allotted to individual tribe members. The goal of the law was to turn the Indians into farmers and ranchers to assimilate them into white society. The Dawes Act was disastrous for Native Americans. By 1934, Indian-held land had dropped from 138 million acres to 48 million acres. Almost half of the remaining Indian-owned land was inappropriate for farming.

Under the Dawes Act, individuals and families received between 80 and 320 acres for farming and ranching. The United States held title to the land in trust for the benefit of the Indian "owner" for a period of twenty-five years. The act further provided that tribal lands that were "surplus" could be offered for sale to non-Indians, with the revenues to be held in trust by the government for the benefit of the tribes.

The Dawes Act affected reservations throughout the Great Plains, except in Indian Territory. For example, in the Devils Lake Sioux Reservation in North Dakota the allotments amounted to about 136,000 acres, with 92,000 surplus acres to be sold to non-Indians.

Some historians believe that the Dawes Act supporters thought it would improve the well-being of Native Americans. Government "reformers" viewed traditional Indian cultural practices as roadblocks to the "advancement" of Native Americans, and they believed that the solution was to break up the reservations and force Indians to adopt a more "civilized" lifestyle. Other historians insist that the Dawes Act was just a way to sell Indian lands to white Americans. Whichever view is true, individual land ownership was unheard of in most traditional Native American beliefs. Many Indians did not want to become farmers and they were not trained to succeed at it. Many of them lost their allotted land entirely through foreclosures. Millions of surplus acres were sold by the government to whites. The Dawes Act led to Native Americans losing millions of acres of their lands without accomplishing any of the intended "reforms."

Source: The Dawes Act
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