JF Ptak Science Books Post 1405
“This might seem like a somewhat rapid reduction of the land of Indian estates”--Thomas Morgan, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, on the sale/disposition of 15% of all Indian Lands over the period 1887-1891.
Indian Affairs Commissioner Thomas Morgan had a commanding view of the situation regarding the American Indian at the end of the 19th century, considering that he was king of the hill, surveying the scene from his commanding height, in control of the affairs of all American Indians from the relative security of knowing hardly anything about them. It so happens that during the period 1887 through 1903, the Indians suffered about as much loss to their way of life and their lands than about any other time in their history, and this at a time when almost all Indian resistance to federal control had already been eliminated by force or terror or hunger or the sheer weight of the impossibility of fighting the United States1.
Most of the problems with the loss of land and the approach of the near-end of their tribal system occurred with what federal representatives referred to as the “Indian Emancipation Act”, which was formally known as the Dawes Act (and also the General Allotment Act) of 18872. The general fatal thrust in this Congressional action was to relieve the Indians of their reservation system and then their land, to enforce their assimilation into American (white) society, and then to become individual property owners and then tax payers, making the Indian self-reliant and independent. The underlying philosophy here is that it was the reservation system was the cause of the Indians' problems—that it kept the Indians from fulfilling themselves by excluding them from American society, segregated them from “self-improvement”.
"The Indian may now become a free man; free from the thralldom of the tribe; freed from the domination of the reservation system; free to enter into the body of our citizens. This bill may therefore be considered as the Magna Carta of the Indians of our country." --Alice Fletcher, one of the Architects of the Dawes Act
The Act not only managed to give the Indians the lands that they already owned, but it also took the land away at the same time, making it available to heads of households in 160-acre plots. It was supposed to make the Indians into useful members of the white community, and to teach them to be farmers, and to “properly use” the lands which they were given. According to Ronald Takai3, Morgan saw the Indian land as going fallow, and that if they didn't use their land to a good end, then they should lose it. AS Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Morgan said that most of the land that was taken by the government was not being “used...for any purpose whatsoever” with “scarcely any of it....in cultivation”. Hence if the Indians didn't farm the land then the land was being wasted, and if the land was being wasted then the Indian had no right to keep it. Thus the circularity of the Indian's problem was complete—they would be given land if they were using it “properly”, which meant to break off chunks of tribal land and deed it to individual families, which at the end of the life of the head of the household the land would more than likely have to be sold4; and if the land wasn't being cultivated, then the government would take steps to seize it via its system of aggravated purchase.
“The sooner the tribal relations are broken up and the reservation system done away with, the better it will be for all concerned. If there were no other reason for this change, the fact that individual ownership of property is the universal custom among civilized peoples of this country would be a sufficient reason for urging the handful of Indians to adopt it.”
In the four years following the passage of the Dawes Act, something on the order of 17.4 million acres of Indian land was sold or re-allocated, which was about 15% of all Indian lands.
The Burke Act of 1906 was the second time the Dawes Act was amended, and was also perhaps the most devastating change yet made to the tribal ownership system. It gave the government the right to determine which Indians were “competent and capable” to own land, though by design the definition of “competency” was left vague, though it often meant that there was a certain amount of European blood in the Indian being judged. This meant that the “competent” Indian would have their land taken out of trust status, and then become subject to taxation and could be sold by the owner. This also meant that communally owned tribal lands could be divided into individual plots which may then top sold to the highest bidder, If the person was deemed to be “not competent”, though, something entirely different happened:
“...the Secretary of the Interior may, in his discretion, and he is hereby authorized, whenever he shall be satisfied that any Indian allottee is competent and capable of managing his or her affairs at any time to cause to be issued to such allottee a patent in fee simple, and thereafter all restrictions as to sale, encumbrance, or taxation of said land shall be removed. “
Given the situation that the Indian's per capita income was so low, and that most of that was coming from the sale of land and from government stipends, it was almost entirely assured that the Indians, who were in desperate straights, would almost assuredly sell their property once it was within their individual capacity to do so. It was also the case that some Indians were actually judged to be “competent” but weren't informed of it—this wouldn't matter except for the critical part of that Indian's lands now being subject to taxation; and if you didn't know that the lands were being taxed, after come years Uncle Sam came by to collect on the back taxes, and since the Indian would have no money5, the land would then have to be sold to pay for the taxes that the landholder didn't know was accumulating.
The result of the complex story of the Dawes Act and its aftermath was that by its end (which came to an explosive halt in 1934) the Indians lost about 90 million acres of their 1887 land base., amounting to about 66% of all of their land. Plus the dozens of land-grants that were awarded to the railroad companies.
The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 stopped these practices, offering a “New Deal” to the Indians, empowering the new commissioner of Indian Affairs, John Collier, with a sensical approach to the institutional/bureaucratic Indian problem(s) created by U.S. Government with the Dawes Act. It stopped much of the bad craziness of the previous forty years, though the effects of that time are felt to this day.
1. There was still the Ghost Dance to come in 1890, but this was a limited action of desperate people, ending in American soldiers of the 7th Cavalry standing over a trench filled with the bodies of 150 frozen Lakota Sioux (men, women and children) following their massacre at Wounded Knee Creek. There were another 51 Sioux wounded, including 47 women and children.
2. Opening text of the Dawes Act: “....the President of the United States be, and he hereby is, authorized, whenever in his opinion any reservation or any part thereof of such Indians is advantageous for agricultural and grazing purposes, to cause said reservation, or any part thereof, to be surveyed, or resurveyed if necessary, and to allot the lands in said reservation in severalty to any Indian located thereon in quantities as follows: To each head of a family, one-quarter of a section; To each single person over eighteen years of age, one-eighth of a section; To each other single person under eighteen years now living, or who may be born prior to the date of the order of the President directing an allotment of the lands embraced in any reservation, one-sixteenth of a section. The full text is here.
3. Ronald Takai, A Different Mirror, Little Brown, 1995, page 236-7.
4. Under a new law in 1902 at the death of the head of the household the family was required to purchase the land or it would be sold at auction. Since most of the per capita income was made via federal distribution or payment from the government for earlier purchase of tribal land, it was in general the case that only a small percentage of the $200/year was made through farming. Basically, few Indians had the cash to actually buy their land, and so it went to sale, bought in the overwhelming majority of cases by white speculators.
5. In 1907, the combined income of the Cheyennes and Arapahoes was $217,312, of which some $5, 312 resulted from farming. Of the 78 dollar per capita for these two tribes, about 78 cents came from working the fields.