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What Was the Dawes Act?

Native American reservation
The Dawes Act offered Native Americans a pathway to United States citizenship if they gave up tribal lands.

In 1887 under President Grover Cleveland, the Dawes Act was enacted, giving the federal government the right to break up tribal designated lands. 

This new law attempted to assimilate Native Americans into the United States society “in the white mold” by encouraging them to farm small plots of land. 

The Disaster of the Dawes Act

The act stipulated that only the Native Americans who accepted this division of tribal lands were eligible to become United States citizens. 

Ultimately, the government stripped more than 90 million acres of Native American land and sold it to United States citizens.

Tribes Affected by the Dawes Act

The Dawes Commission negotiated with “the five civilized tribes,” the Chickasaw, Cherokee, Chocktaw, Creek/Muscogee, and Seminole.

Specifics of the Law

According to the new law’s terms, the President of the United States determined the suitability of the recipients and issued the grants for which the divided land was deeded. 

Native American woman
Hattie Tom, Apache.

The land was typically allocated in the following manner:

Heads of the household received 160 acres. Unmarried adults received 80 acres.

Recipients were required to remain on their land for 25 years. As United States citizens, they were subject to local, state, and federal laws and taxation.

Initial Issues

Many of the tribes were nomadic and thus unaccustomed to sedentary life. They were not ready for a life of standardized farming and agriculture as required by the Dawes Act.

Navajo Tribal Park
Monument Valley, Navajo Tribal Park.

This new way of life was utterly foreign, and many Native Americans who agreed to the Dawes Plan struggled massively. 

Another cruel twist was that most lands deeded to them were barren and unsuitable for farming.

Surplus Amendment

The bill had to be amended to garner enough votes to pass through Congress

Congress building
The proposed bill had to be amended to receive enough support in Congress.

A new stipulation stated that any surplus land left after the allotment to Native Americans was to be made available for public sale. 

As a result, many land speculators helped to pass the bill. They were sure to place their interests above any Native American family whom the bill was originally intended to help. 

Surplus Results

The federal government worked to negotiate and purchase tribal land to sell it to non-native white settlers. The Government prompted these settlers to head west as a part of manifest destiny and in alignment with the Homestead Act

lake surrounded by pine trees
The Homestead Act encouraged people to settle in new areas of the United States.

The Homestead Act was similar to the Dawes Act in that it allotted land to settlers who acted as pioneers and settled new areas of the United States. 

As a result of the selling of surplus lands, Native American tribes ceded or sold 60 million acres of Indian territory to homesteaders and large corporations. 

Land Sales or Lack Thereof

When the government paid tribes for their land sold to white settlers, which was infrequent, they were underpaid. 

The scant payments they did receive were often quickly squandered as the Native American value system did not rely on a monetary system as a means of exchange. Thus many Natives were left with no tribal land and little to no money. 

Issues With Inheritance

Inheritance became a big issue for many tribe members who had enrolled in the Dawes Act to receive land allotments. 

Sioux tribe
Inheritance became a problematic issue under the Dawes Act.

When adults received allotments, they were often confounded and unsuccessful farmers. They had spent their childhoods in boarding schools that attempted to assimilate them into white American society. 

In the case of multiple inheritors, the new plots were often too small to be used for farming. 

Unable to Sell

As mentioned above, unlike white settlers, Native Americans could not sell or even vacate their land due to wording in the General Allotment Act that declared Natives allottees being declared “incompetent” to handle the affairs of their own land. 

The United States government retained the allotted lands’ legal title, making it impossible for Natives to sell or lease the land without the government’s approval. 

After a quarter of a century, Native American landowners were given full land ownership and allowed to sell or lease the land if desired. 

Agricultural Woes

There are many reasons why the Dawes Act was a massive failure and highly detrimental to Native Americans.

bison in the wilderness
Switching from a nomadic to an agricultural lifestyle caused many issues for Native Americans.

Most notably, Native Americans with no experience or desire to farm received infertile land upon which to do so. 

The act provided no agricultural education, training, or costly farming equipment necessary for cultivation. 

Cultural Differences

Intensive agricultural living was culturally unacceptable for some Native American tribes involved with the Dawes Act. 

As a result of being cut off from their traditional way of living and having nothing else, many Native Americans sold their land after the 25-year waiting period. 

Further Amendments 

Burke Act

In 1906 the Burke Act was passed into law, which authorized the Secretary of the Interior to decide whether or not a Native person was “competent” to manage their lands. 

If the person was deemed competent, the interior secretary could remove the lands from the federal government’s trust, making the land taxable.

The Secretary of the Interior was allowed to do this without the knowledge or desire of the Native American allottees. 

This resulted in many Native people having their land sold from them in tax foreclosure auctions because they owed taxes on land that they believed was in the trust of the United States government. 

1908 Amendment

In 1908 another act was passed that granted the Secretary of the Interior additional powers. 

Zion National Park
A controversial 1908 Amendment saw Native Americans lose a further 27 million acres of land.

The Secretary of the Interior was now allowed to sell the allotments of deceased Native American landowners should he deem their heirs incompetent. 

As a result of this and the Burke Act, an additional 27 million acres of Native lands were removed from Native hands. 

Merriam Report

Eventually, the United States government grew concerned with the vast quantities of land passing out of Native American hands. 

In 1928 the government issued a report (known as the Merriam Report) that strongly criticized the policy of allotment and the United States Indian Service as a whole (now known as the Bureau of Indian Affairs – BIA). 

The report provided irrefutable evidence of the devastating effect the federal policy relating to Native Americans had on Natives and helped to spur changes within the administration of Native affairs. 

Wheeler-Howard Act

In 1934 the Wheeler-Howard Act was passed, officially ending the allotment of Native lands. This act ensured that all of the allotments that were in trust would remain in trust indefinitely. 

Denali National park
The Wheeler-Howard Act ended the allotment of tribal land.

Nonetheless, the new law did not change many aspects that had hindered Native landowners since the initial passing of the Dawes Act in 1887.

Thus, Native sovereignty continued to decrease along with their land holdings. 


The Dawes Act and subsequent amendments caused the indigenous people to lose over 90 million acres of land and devastated Native tribes.

It continues today as life on a reservation can still be rife with poverty, addiction, and despondency.

Natives also lost access to swaths of sacred sites and autonomy and still face increasingly fractured land ownership. 

One Response

  1. This is the saddest chapter in America’s history. The native were treated like a common animals that could speak. It is a real shame that we can’t go back in time and stop killings, the displacements, the prejudice and I can’t find words bad enough to describe entire cultures eradicated.

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