It may be fashionable to play Indian now, but it was also trendy 125 years ago when people paid $5 apiece for falsified documents declaring them Native on the Dawes Rolls.
These so-called five-dollar Indians paid government agents under the table in order to reap the benefits that came with having Indian blood. Mainly white men with an appetite for land, five-dollar Indians paid to register on the Dawes Rolls, earning fraudulent enrollment in tribes along with benefits inherited by generations to come.
“These were opportunistic white men who wanted access to land or food rations,” said Gregory Smithers, associate professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University. “These were people who were more than happy to exploit the Dawes Commission—and government agents, for $5, were willing to turn a blind eye to the graft and corruption.”
The Dawes Commission, established in 1893 to enforce the General Allotment Act of 1887 (or the Dawes Act), was charged with convincing tribes to cede their land to the United States and divide remaining land into individual allotments. The commission also required Indians to claim membership in only one tribe and register on the Dawes Rolls, what the government meant to be a definitive record of individuals with Indian blood.
The Curtis Act, passed in 1898, targeted the Five Civilized Tribes (Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole), forcing them to accept allotments and register on the Dawes Rolls. The two acts—which came during a “period of murky social context” after the Civil War when white and black men were intermarrying with Native American women, aimed to help the government keep track of “real” Indians while accelerating efforts to assimilate Indian people into white culture, Smithers said.
“By 1865, African Americans and white Americans were moving into the Midwest, into the Indian and Oklahoma territories, all vying for some patch of land they could call their own and live out their Jeffersonian view of independence,” he said. “The federal government poured a lot of effort and energy into the Dawes Commission, but at the same time it was very hard for both Native and American governments to keep track of who was who.”
The Dawes Commission set up tents in Indian Territory, said Bill Welge, director emeritus of the Oklahoma Historical Society’s Office of American Indian Culture and Preservation. There, field clerks scoured written records, took oral testimony and generated enrollment cards for individuals determined to have Indian blood.
That included authentic Indians, Welge said. But it also included lots of people with questionable heritage.
“Commissioners took advantage of their positions and enrolled people who had very minimal or questionable connections to the tribes,” he said. “They were not adverse to taking money under the table.”
The implications of such shady practices are enormous now, Smithers said. Five-dollar Indians passed their unearned benefits to heirs who still lay claim to tribal citizenship and associated privileges.
“Now we have people who are white but who can trace their names back to the rolls used by tribal nations to ascertain who has rights as citizens,” he said. “That means we have white people who have the ability to vote at large; it means political rights; it means the potential to influence tribal policy on a whole range of issues; it means people have access to health care, education and employment. The implications are quite profound for people who got away with fraud.”
On the flip side, while non-Natives paid to play Indian, many authentic Indians who didn’t trust the government chose not to register with the Dawes Rolls at all, said Gene Norris, a genealogist at the Cherokee National Historical Society. That means people with legitimate claims to tribal enrollment and the benefits are now excluded.
“Native Americans are the only racial group defined by blood,” Norris said. “Even that was arbitrary. In the 1890s, siblings who talked to different commissioners emerged with different blood quantum. Because they didn’t apply together, some of them have different blood degrees.”
In short, the Dawes Rolls forever changed the way the federal government defined Indians—and, in many cases, the way Indians still define themselves.
In 1900, one woman registered on the rolls with 1/256 Cherokee blood, Norris said. Now, some enrolled members of the Cherokee Nation have as little as 1/8,196 Indian blood.
The Dawes Rolls—even now—are a murky and “very inaccurate” gauge of Indian citizenship, he said. In the 2000 Census, the number of people claiming Cherokee ancestry was three times that of official tribal enrollment.
“That’s what happens when the federal government established the rules, not the Natives,” he said.
Smithers has no estimate of the number of people who fraudulently registered on the Dawes Rolls—or who lay false claim to Indian citizenship now. But five-dollar Indians did not represent an isolated case of appropriation.
“What we had was simply white people claiming to be Indian,” he said. “They were early wannabes, just like we have today. Five-dollar Indian is just another term for that.”