Dawes Allotment Act: It's Been 130 Years

Failed proposals to “free the Indians” have been put forward before, going back to the Dawes Allotment Act in the nineteenth century.

There are already proposals being put forth for the Trump administration to supposedly “free the Indians” from the yoke of federal control by “privatizing Indian lands,” particularly what the mainstream press has termed “oil-rich lands.” We would be wise to remember, however, that such failed proposals have been put forward before, going back to the Dawes Allotment Act in the nineteenth century. Here’s some food for thought: private land or property is taxable, and the power to tax is the power to destroy.

Premised on the doctrine of Christian discovery and domination, the Dawes General Allotment Act was enacted by Congress on February 8, 1887. This year, 2017, marks 130 years since the passage of that congressional act, which resulted in the non-Indian society economically benefitting by land-grabbing and “privatizing” tens of millions of acres of the territories of our Original Nations.

In his book Of Utmost Good Faith (1971), Vine Deloria Jr., published a speech by Senator Henry M. Teller of Colorado who opposed the Allotment Act. Teller’s concern with that legislation is applicable to the recent proposal to “privatize” (also spelled “tax”) Indian lands, “It is in the interest of the speculators; it is in the interest of the men who are clutching up this land, but not in the interest of the Indians at all.” (emphasis added) He further said:

…and there is the baneful [destructive] feature of it that when you have allotted the Indians land on which they cannot make a living the Secretary of the Interior may then proceed to purchase their land, and Congress will. . . ratify the purchase, and the Indians will become the owners in a few years in fee [taxable , and saleable], and away goes their title, and, as I said before, they are wanderers over the face of the continent without a place whereon to lay their heads. (emphasis added)

Senator Teller then issued a prophecy, which came to pass. Teller’s prophecy ought to be read and taken to heart by every member of the incoming Trump administration and its Native American Coalition for Trump:

If I stand alone in the Senate, I want to put on the record my prophecy in this matter, that when 30 or 40 years shall have passed and these Indians shall have parted with their title, they will curse the hand that was raised professedly in their defense to secure this kind of legislation.

If the senators strongly advocating for the bill, added Teller, truly “understood Indian character, and Indian laws, and Indian morals, and Indian religion, they would not be here clamoring” for it.

Today, 130 years later, our nations are still suffering from the checker-boarding of white-owned allotments “in fee” on Indian reservations, and the fractionalization of Indian lands, as a direct result of the Allotment Act. In addition, by means of Allotment, the American society got around Indian treaties and enriched itself with some 90-million acres of Native nation lands, all in the name of “privatization.” The current proposal to “privatize” Indian lands, presumably in the context of the U.S. property system, fits neatly into that long-range plan to destroy the collective and distinctive political identity of our Original Nations.


In the context of the Allotment Act, Commissioner of Indian Affairs Thomas J. Morgan proposed using U.S. boarding schools of domination to destroy Native nations. His policy proposals document an official U.S. government genocidal intention to destroy our nations as nations. “[U.S.] Patriotic songs should be taught to the pupils,” wrote Morgan, “and they should sing them frequently until they acquire complete familiarity with them. Patriotic selections should be committed and recited publicly, and should constitute a portion of the reading exercises.” (emphasis added) Morgan continued with his grand plan:

National holidays—Washington’s birthday, Decoration Day, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and Christmas—should be observed with appropriate exercises in all Indian schools. It will also be well to observe the anniversary of the day upon which the “Dawes bill” for giving to Indians allotments of land in severalty [divided amongst individuals] became law, viz, February 8, 1887, and to use that occasion to impress upon Indian youth the enlarged scope and opportunity given them by this law and the new obligations it imposes [on them].” (emphasis added)

How ironically sinister: Force Native children being held captive in U.S. boarding schools to commemorate as positive a piece of legislation designed to destroy their own nations. In October of that same year (1889), Morgan stated in his annual report to Congress: “The Indians must conform to ‘the white man’s ways,’ peaceably if they will, forcibly if they must.” Then, exhibiting the kind of “sensitivity” one might expect from someone in his dominating position, Morgan further stated: “This civilization may not be the best possible, but it is the best the Indians can get. They can not [sic] escape it, and must either conform to it or be crushed by it.”

Young Native people were forced to internalize an “American” way of thinking in the boarding schools, and patriotism toward the United States was inculcated in the children by raising the U.S. flag daily, and by singing songs expressing U.S. patriotism. Such rituals were part of the United States government’s effort to genocidally break apart our nations and incorporate individual Native people into the body politic of the United States. Wrote Morgan:

The tribal relations should be broken up socialism destroyed, and the family and the autonomy of the individual substituted. The allotment of lands in severalty, the establishment of local courts and police, the development of a personal sense of independence, and the universal adoption of the English language are means to this end.”

The Allotment policy path was terrific for land speculators and for the economy of the United States as tens of millions of acres of Indian land was stripped away from our Native nations and placed into the private property system and economy of the United States. The entire pattern illustrates the seldom noticed definition of the word “civilization,” “the forcing of a cultural pattern on a population to which it is foreign,” which Morgan invoked when he wrote, “The paramount duty of the hour is to prepare the rising generation of Indians for the new order of things thus forced upon them.” (emphasis added)

Time will tell how the Trump administration decides to deal with U.S.-Indian affairs and Native nations. This is especially true given the pro-oil-exploitation and pro-oil-pipeline orientation of those president-elect Trump has nominated for key positions in his administration. In any event, there is an important teaching to be gained from the example of millions of acres being grabbed viz-a-viz the Dawes Allotment Act, along with the sordid and bloody history of U.S.-Indian affairs generally, in the name of “bestowing civilization” on the “heathen savage”: Sometimes the proposals put forward in the name of “reform,” such as the “privatization” of Indian nation lands, are the ones that pose the greatest threat to our nations and peoples.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008). He is a producer of the documentary movie, The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code, directed and produced by Sheldon Wolfchild (Dakota), with narration by Buffy Sainte-Marie (Cree). The movie can be ordered from 38Plus2Productions.com