The 1887 Dawes Act: The U.S. Theft of 90 Million Acres of Indian Land


In his Executive Order declaring November 2011 “Native American Heritage Month,” U.S. President Barack Obama said that his administration “recognizes the painful chapters in our shared history.” As a key part of that history, today marks the 125th year since the U.S. Congress passed the Dawes General Allotment Act in 1887.

Under that allotment legislation, for which there was no legitimate constitutional basis, Indian land holdings dropped from 138 million acres down to 48 million acres, for a loss to Indian nations of some 90 million acres of land. During a period of 47 years under the Act, some 60 percent of all Indian lands at that time are characterized as having passed to the United States, thereby resulted in tremendous boost to the economic growth of the U.S. economy.

Designed as part of a divide-and-conquer policy, the Allotment Act divided the total acreage of Indian reservation lands into 40, 80 or 160 acre parcels (a head of family would receive 160 acres, a single person or orphan over 18 years would receive 80 acres, and persons under the age of 18 would receive 40 acres). Reservation lands left over were designated ‘surplus’ lands and sold off to non-Indian ‘settlers.’

Clearly, allotment was a massive grab of Indian lands by the United States, but a key goal of the policy was to destroy the integrity of Indian nations by assimilating Indian people into the body politic of the United States. It was an effort to make Indian peoples no longer understand themselves as nations, and an effort to cut their cultural connections to their traditional lands.

During his first inaugural address, President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt stated his view that the Allotment Act was “a mighty pulverizing machine intended to break up the tribal mass.” Roosevelt was the same president who stated the racist view that “it is of incalculable importance that America, Australia, and Siberia should pass out of the hands of their red, black, and aboriginal owners, and become the heritage of the dominant world races.” Behind allotment was the desire to dominate and exploit Indian lands and resources.

In 1886, one year prior to the Allotment Act, President Grover Cleveland delivered his annual address to both houses Congress. He spoke of “the management of Indian affairs,” and “the accomplishment of an object which has become pressing in its importance—the more rapid transition from tribal organization to [U.S.] citizenship, of such portions of the Indians as are capable of civilized life.” Cleveland also expressed his view that the Indians’ inclination, long fostered by a defective system of control, is to cling to the habits and customs of their ancestors and struggle with persistence against the change of life which their altered circumstances press upon them. But barbarism and civilization cannot live together. It is impossible that such incongruous conditions should coexist on the same soil.

President Cleveland further said that the paths “in which they [the Indians] should walk must be clearly marked for them and they must be led or guided until they are familiar with the way and competent to assume the duties and responsibilities of our [U.S.] citizenship.”

In his 1987 law review article, “Constitution, Courts, Indian Tribes,” law professor Milner S. Ball said the Allotment Act’s purpose was “to do away with tribes and assimilate their number into the states.” Ball further stated that there was “no constitutional basis for Allotment Act and its aftermath.” “Non-Indian desire for Indian land, for minerals, and for the Christianization-Americanization of Indians prevailed,” said Ball. Eroding Indian nationhood by imposing U.S. citizenship on Indian people—despite Indian nations being completely outside the framework of the U.S. Constitution—and working toward the dispossession of Indian nations for the economic benefit of the United States were the main rationales behind the Allotment Act.

Indian Country is still dealing with the aftermath of the Dawes Allotment Act. Indian nations are making present day efforts to reacquire portions of their traditional territories under the Wheeler-Howard Act of June 18, 1934. Otherwise known as the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA), it created a legislative framework whereby American Indians could organize themselves as “federally recognized Indian tribes” and reacquire additional lands.

Although the IRA was supposed to remedy some of the dire results of the General Allotment Act, the U.S. government is now able to presume that such federally recognized tribes no longer possess the free and independent nationhood status of their ancestors. This is because Indian Tribes organized under the IRA are legislatively presumed to exist, according to the wording of the IRA, ‘under the jurisdiction of the United States.’

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee/Lenape) is the co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008), and a columnist for Indian Country Today Media Network.