On February 8, 1887, President Grover Cleveland signed the Dawes Severalty Act (also called the General Allotment Act) into law. The act split up reservations held communally by Native American tribes into smaller units and distributed these units to individuals within the tribe. It also changed the legal status of Native Americans from tribal members to individuals subject to federal laws and dissolved many tribal affiliations The Dawes Severalty/General Allotment Act was a huge blow to tribal sovereignty.
Cleveland’s goal was to encourage Native Americans to integrate into American agrarian culture. Cleveland, who once said though the people support the government; the government should not support the people, led a socially reformist yet financially conservative government that did not believe in welfare handouts. He signed the act in a sincere but misguided attempt to improve the Native Americans’ lives by incorporating them into white culture, rejecting earlier policies toward Native Americans that forced them to live on desolate reservations where it was difficult to make a living.
Named for its chief author, Senator Henry Laurens Dawes from Massachusetts, the Dawes Severalty Act reversed the long-standing American policy of allowing Indian tribes to maintain their traditional practice of communal use and control of their lands. Instead, the Dawes Act gave the president the power to divide Indian reservations into individual, privately owned plots. The act dictated that men with families would receive 160 acres, single adult men were given 80 acres, and boys received 40 acres. Women received no land.
Before the family could sell their allotment, they were required to get a certificate of competency. If the family did not succeed at farming, the land reverted back to the federal government for sale, usually to white settlers. The Dawes Act reduced Native American landholdings from 138 million acres in 1887 to 78 million in 1900 and continued the trend of white settlement on previously Native American-held land. In addition, the law created federally funded boarding schools designed to assimilate Native American children into white society.
The most important motivation for the Dawes Act was Anglo-American hunger for Indian lands. The act provided that after the government had doled out land allotments to the Indians, the sizeable remainder of the reservation properties would be opened for sale to whites. Consequently, Indians eventually lost 86 million acres of land, or 62 percent of their total pre-1887 holdings.
The remainder of the land once allotted to appointed natives was declared surplus and sold to non-native settlers as well as railroad and other large corporations; other sections were converted into federal parks and military compounds. The concern shifted from encouraging private native landownership to satisfying the white settlers’ demand for larger portions of land.
In reality, the Dawes Severalty Act proved a very effective tool for taking lands from Indians and giving it to Anglos, but the promised benefits to the Indians never materialized. Racism, bureaucratic bungling, and inherent weaknesses in the law deprived the Indians of the strengths of tribal ownership, while severely limiting the economic viability of individual ownership. Many tribes also deeply resented and resisted the government’s heavy-handed attempt to destroy their traditional cultures. The Curtis Act of 1908 completed the process by abolishing tribal jurisdiction of Indian land.
After decades of seeing the disarray these acts caused, the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration supported passage in 1934 of the US Indian Reorganization Act. Congress terminated the allotment process under the Dawes Act by enacting the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 (“Wheeler-Howard Act”). It ended allotment and created a “New Deal” for Indians, including renewing their rights to reorganize and form their own governments. . The Wheeler-Howard Act ended further transfer of Indian lands to Anglos and provided for a return to voluntary communal Indian ownership, but considerable damage had already been done.
Secretary of the Interior Hubert Work commissioned a study of federal administration of Indian policy and the condition of Indian people. Completed in 1936, The Problem of Indian Administration – commonly known as the Meriam Report after the study’s director, Lewis Meriam – documented fraud and misappropriation by government agents. In particular, the Meriam Report found that the General Allotment Act had been used to illegally deprive Native Americans of their land rights.
Despite termination of the allotment process in 1934, effects of the General Allotment Act continue into the present. For example, one provision of the Act was the establishment of a trust fund, administered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, to collect and distribute revenues from oil, mineral, timber, and grazing leases on Native American lands. The BIA’s alleged improper management of the trust fund resulted in litigation, in particular the case Cobell v. Kempthorne, settled in 2009 for $3.4 billion.
The allotment process in Alaska, under the separate Alaska Native Allotment Act, continued until its revocation in 1993 by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.