Today in History, February 8, 1887:
President Grover Cleveland signs the Dawes Severalty Act into law. Massachusetts Senator Henry Laurens Dawes authored the bill with the intent of facilitating the integration of native Americans into the white society.
Dawes and others felt this was the only way to “protect” the Indians, by forcing them to cease their communal way of living.
The law broke up the tribal holdings, giving individuals the land. Married men were given 160 acres of land, single men 80 acres, boys 40 acres and women no land.
The thought was that by forcing the native American families into individual units, as whites lived, they would be assimilated.
As seems to have happened with all acts to benefit the Indians, hidden within the law was a land grab. The law provided that after the lands had been apportioned, any land that was left could be sold to non-Indians. The result was that by the 1930’s, when Congress reversed the act and gave the tribes back their rights as nations, the tribes had lost fully 3/4 of their previous land holdings on the reservations.
Initially the 5 Civilized Tribes in Indian and Oklahoma Territories were exempt, but eventually policies were initiated that effected them also. Much of the land that wasn’t sold outright to non-Indians was eventually sold by the Indian owners when they were down on their luck, reducing tribal holdings even more.
The act also had other negative effects on the Native American community, as it forced changes in the community dynamic; the traditional roles for men and women in the tribal leadership were changed.
The Wheeler-Howard Act of 1934 repealed the Dawes Act, but much of the damage was irreparable.