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Dawes Severalty Act

Grover Cleveland

Dawes Severalty Act: Grover Cleveland was the 22nd and 24th American President who served in office from March 4, 1885 to March 4, 1889 and from March 4, 1893 - March 4,1897. One of the important events during his presidency was the passing of the Dawes Act.

Definition and Summary of the Dawes Severalty Act
Summary and definition:
The Dawes Act, also referred to as the General Allotment Act or the 1887 Dawes Severalty Act of 1887, was a federal law that was approved on February, 8, 1887. The Dawes Severalty Act was passed to protect the property rights of Native American Indians but the provisions of the law was organized in such a way that tribe members would be assimilated and integrated into American society and culture.

1887 Dawes Act
The 1887 Dawes Act was entitled an "Act to Provide for the Allotment of Lands in Severalty to Indians on the Various Reservations".

1887 Dawes Act: Severalty
The word "severalty" meant that the ownership of land in reservations would no longer be tribal or common, but would belong to an individual.

1887 Dawes Act Purpose
The purpose of the Dawes Act was ostensibly enacted to protect Native American property rights and welfare during the land rush that was anticipated when lands in Indian Territory were opened for white settlement (1889 Oklahoma Land Rush). However, the purpose of the Dawes Severalty Act was also an attempt to integrate Native American Indians into white society by changing their nomadic lifestyle to the static, settled western lifestyle of farmers and settlers.

1887 Dawes Act for kids: Background History
The Indian Policy of the United States government centered on the policy of allotment by which communally held Native Indian tribal lands were divided into individually owned private property. Native Indian lands were seized for settlement by non-Indians and for development by railroads.  The 1830 Indian Removal Act had given the federal government the power to force the relocation of Native Indians, living in the east of the country, to territory that was west of the Mississippi River, referred to as Indian Territory, which had resulted in the horrific re-location of the Five Civilized tribes along the infamous Trail of Tears. Congress had created a massive Indian Territory, from Texas to the middle of the Missouri River as can be seen on the above Indian Territory map and about 90,000 Native American Indians had been forcibly relocated and obliged to merge with other tribes.

Purpose of the Dawes Act for kids: Henry L. Dawes
The Dawes Act was sponsored by lawyer and U.S. Senator Henry L. Dawes of Massachusetts and was passed on February 8, 1887. Henry Dawes also believed that the ownership of land played an important part in persuading people to accept the laws of the federal government. Dawes therefore suggested that Native Americans should be granted land in exchange for renouncing tribal allegiances.

Senator Henry Dawes might have been well intentioned but he clearly favored the assimilation of the Native American Indian.  Henry Dawes expressed his belief in the civilizing power of owning land and property was quoted as saying that 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 property."

The Purpose of the Dawes Act for kids
The purpose of the Dawes Act were as follows:

To break up tribes

To halt the nomadic lifestyle of Native American Indians

To integrate Native Indians into the lifestyle and culture of western Americans

To enroll with the Bureau of Indian Affairs - later called the 'Dawes Rolls'

To encourage Native Indians to adopt a settled farming based existence

To reduce the cost of the administration of Native American Indians

To settle and allot individual Native Indians plots of land

To open the remainder of the 'surplus' land to white settlers for profit

Provisions of the Dawes Act for kids
The provisions of the Dawes Act were as follows:

Native Americans registering on a tribal "roll" were granted allotments of reservation land

To provide for the granting of landholdings to individual Native Americans, replacing communal tribal holdings:

  • 160 acres if they are to farm

  • 80 acres if they are to raise cattle

  • 40 acres for any normal living purposes

Each Native American Indian will choose his or her own allotment and the family will choose a land allotment for each minor child.

The U.S. agent to certify each allotment and provide two copies of the certification to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs

Native Americans not residing on their reservation, or without reservations, will receive an equal land allotment

A Secretary of the Interior will hold the allotments "in trust" for 25 years

On completion of the land patent process, the allotment holder will become a United States citizen

The Five Civilized Tribes and several other tribes were exempt from the act

1887 Dawes Act: Why did the Dawes Act fail?
The Dawes Act failed because the plots were too small for sustainable agriculture. The Native American Indians lacked tools, money, experience or expertise in farming. The farming lifestyle was a completely alien way of life. The Bureau of Indian Affairs failed to manage the process fairly or efficiently. Another reason why the Dawes Act failed was because Native Indians were suspicious of the federal government and appalled by previous relocation efforts. The Native American Indians who had refused to submit to previous relocations refused to register on the Dawes Rolls for fear that they would be caught and punished.

Effect and Significance of the Dawes Act
The effect and significance of the Dawes Act was that

  • In 1889, the “Unassigned Lands” in Indian Territory were officially opened to white settlement

  • Many elements of Native American tribal culture disappeared

  • Whole tribes of Native Indians disappeared

  • The reservation system was nearly destroyed

  • Before the Dawes Act, 150 million acres lands remained in Indian hands - within 20 years, two-thirds of their land was gone

1887 Dawes Act for kids: The Dawes Commission and the Dawes Rolls
The Dawes Act was amended in 1891 and again in 1906 by the Burke Act. In 1893, Henry Dawes was appointed to head a three-member commission (the Dawes Commission) to the Five Civilized Tribes to negotiate agreements with the leaders of the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole tribes that would end tribal land ownership and give each member individual possession of a portion of the tribal lands. The Dawes Rolls list individuals who chose to enroll and were approved for membership in the Five Civilized Tribes.

US American History
1881-1913: Maturation Era

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