Congressman Henry Dawes of Massachusetts sponsored a
landmark piece of legislation, the General Allotment Act (The Dawes
Severalty Act) in 1887. (See
the full text of the Act here.) It was designed to encourage the
breakup of the tribes and promote the assimilation of Indians into American
Society. It will be the major Indian policy until the 1930s. Dawes'
goal was to create independent farmers out of Indians -- give them land
and the tools for citizenship.
Reaction to Senator Dawes' Act were quite varied. Alice
Fletcher, an Eastern woman who was a leader of a group called "Friends
of the Indians," was one of the architects of the new law.
"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
A Nez Perce Indian expressed a quite different reaction.
"We do not want our land cut up in little pieces...
A groan of assent ran along the dark line of Sphinxes."
Congressman Henry Dawes expressed some rather starling
views in the following statement.
"... expressed his faith in the civilizing power
of private property with the claim that to be civilized was to 'wear
civilized clothes ... cultivate the ground, live in houses, ride in
Studebaker wagons, send children to school, drink whiskey [and] own
While Senator Dawes may have been well meaning in his
intentions, the results were less than satisfactory for the Indians.
It provided for each head of an Indian family to be given 160 acres
of farmland or 320 acres of grazing land. The remaining tribal lands
were to be declared "surplus" and opened up for whites. Tribal
ownership, and tribes themselves, were simply to disappear. The story
would be much the same across much of the West. Before the Dawes Act,
some 150 million acres remained in Indian hands. Within twenty years,
two-thirds of their land was gone. The reservation system was nearly
Standing Bear, Tibbles, and other who participated in
the lecture to the East to gain support for the Ponca cause specifically,
and the Indian cause in general, did not foresee the problems that legislation
like the Dawes Act would create. Land allotted to individual Indians
was soon controlled by non-Indians. Indian lost much of their land and
received very inadequate payment for the land they gave up. Indians,
who received compensation for giving up their land, also quickly spent
the money. They were unused to managing money. Few contemporary historians
would judge the allotment policy of acts like the Dawes Act, successful.