American West: Fact, Fiction, Film

How the new Americans affected the native americans

native for the American West

The (Dawes) Allotment Act 1887
and Assimilation

"The proper treatment of the original occupants of this land - the Indians - is one deserving of care and study. I will favour any course towards them which tends to their civilization, Christianization and ultimate citizenship".
President Ulysses S. Grant First Inaugural Address 1869

"What we can and should do fit the Indians, as much as possible, for the habits and occupations of civilized life, by work and education; to individualize them in possession and appreciation of property, by allotting to them lands in severalty, giving them .....title individually to the parcels of land they cultivate"
(Carl Schurtz, Secretary of the Interior 1877-1881, Writing in North American Review1881, quoted in Brian Dippie, The Vanishing American, 1982, p161-2)

"Like other mistaken policies it was all part of the centuries old aim of turning Indians into white people".
Angie Debo, A History of the Indians of the United States, 1970, p 299


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The (Dawes) Allotment Act 1887 and Assimilation


During the 1870s the protestant churches lost control of the Indian agencies, but they still retained control of government policy towards the native Americans. In 1881 Helen Hunt Jackson produced a damning critique of American Policy towards the Indians which was called " A Century of Dishonor". Although Jackson herself offered no immediate solutions, the detail in her work inspired the Reform movement, whose people saw themselves as champions of the native Americans. However in practice the direction they took policy was not to the liking or in the interest of the native Americans themselves. Liberals like Schurtz, Secretary of the Interior 1877-1881, saw the Indians as 'standing in the way of the development of the country, (they would) form part of it and (benefit) by it.' At best it was patronising, at worst it was arrogant and gave new opportunities for the land grabbers to get their hands on lands which had been promised to native Americans. 'as long as the grass shall grow'. In the words of the reformer Richard Henry Pratt in 1878,: 'the the enjoyment of their savage life....he is in childish ignorance of the methods and course best to pursue'. Pratt's answer was to 'give the help that he now needs'. (1) Previous 'friends' of the native Americans had seen the reservation system as the key to solving the Indian 'problem'. Now the reservation system was seen as its cause.

Although reformers like Pratt did not see native Americans as racially inferior their perception of the inferiority of Indian culture amounted to the same thing, since their culture was part of the native Americans' essence. The Reform Policy was designed to 'civilise' native Americans by suppressing their communities and culture, and fragmenting their cohesion, thereby integrating them into the American racial melting pot. Richard White identifies three ways in which this was done (2).

1. Traditional customs and practices - in the family or community - were to be discouraged, or if that did not work they would be banned.
2. Children would be 'educated' -in practice indoctrinated - with the Protestant white American values instead of their traditional values.
3. The common ownership of land was to be changed - reservations would be broken up into 'allotments' for families to cultivate.

1. Kill the culture

The basic premise behind the new policy was that traditional native American culture had no value. If they failed to understand this they would be forced to accept the superior culture of the Whites, and to be integrated into American society as individuals, instead of continuing to retain their separate cultural identity. This became known as 'assimilation'.

Most of the native Americans had been subdued by the military and now relied upon government aid. This gave the reformers the power to enforce their policy by rewarding 'good Indians' who complied with their demands. However if individuals ignored the new laws which banned traditional ways, they were put in prison. In 1883 'medicine making', bride payments and polygamy were made illegal. In 1884 so was the Lakota Sun Dance. Practicing their cultural heritage was seen as "anti progressive", a "hindrance to civilization of a tribe" and left them open to the charge of committing an 'Indian Offense', with varying punishments starting at ten days in the Indian Agency guardhouse.

'The white people made war on the Lakota to keep them from practising their religion' Short Bull (3)

2. 'kill the Indian and save the man'.

Following the Red River War, in the southern plains, some Cheyenne, Kiowa and Comanche prisoners, many arbitrarily selected, had been exiled in Fort Marion Florida. Richard Henry Pratt, a serving army officer, supervised them from 1875-8. (4) He reached the conclusion that education was of paramount importance in 'civilising' the Indians. Pratt obtained funding from the government to help him to open a boarding school for Indian children in Carlisle, Pennsylvania in 1879. He famously summed up his idea as 'kill the Indian and save the man'. Although he perhaps overstated the case because he felt under threat, his was the ultimate in cultural arrogance. The aim was the destruction of a separate cultural identity in order for the individuals to be assimilated into the superior culture of the white Americans. To do this it was necessary to take them away from the "degradation" of their families. Children were forbidden from speaking their own language, practising their own ways or contacting their families. In keeping with Pratt's background the schools were run on military lines, with obedience demanded; formal timetables and approaches including marching drills were adopted. Discipline was strictly enforced to support the inhuman environment. Native beliefs were replaced by Christianity. While half the time was devoted to 'education', half was given over to 'industrial training'. To further "encourage" cultural assimilation the practice of "outing" was commonly adopted whereby after a lengthy introductory period the boys and girls were allocated to local white families.

Other schools were established on the Carlisle model. These schools were also forbidding and formal places. Their impact on the children may be seen in the photographs of them. The boys' appearance apes that of the Whites: formal military style suits, hair cut short and parted. Their faces are pinched and without life, painting a grim picture of the effect of the schools. Girls were to be formally trained in housekeeping, an idea emanating from eighteenth century New England missionaries. Despite the now known reality of work being pretty much divided between genders, the eighteenth and nineteenth century stereotype was that the Indian men were lazy and selfish and that women did most of the work. Men were presented as sitting around except when hunting or making war. "His squaw ... built his wigwam, cut his wood, and carried his burdens....cleared the land and dressed the skins." (5). The idea was simple, inculcate the girls with White methods and attitudes and the whole culture would shift. No one could argue with General Samuel C Armstrong's observation "without educated women there is no civilisation", it was what he and others saw as "education" and how it should be conducted that is today so repulsive, although it seems it was quite acceptable ( to White Americans) at the time. When Pratt journeyed into the interior to reservations like Fort Berthold to recruit for the schools he found it much easier to recruit boys than girls. Rather than put this reluctance down to the obvious emotional upheaval and natural parental suspicions Pratt saw this as evidence that the girls were seen as essential to do the work. " Whenever the train stopped at the railway stations it was met by great numbers of white people who came to gaze upon the little Indian 'savages'......In my mind I often recall that scene, - eighty odd blanketed boys and girls marching down the street surrounded by a jeering, unsympathetic people whose only emotions were those of hate and fear; the conquerors looking upon the conquered. And no more understanding than if we suddenly had been dropped from the moon. " (6)

Once at the school, the transforming or "civilizing" process took place. The new clothing felt "cumbersome and awkward", "our hair was cut", new names like "John, Henry or Maggie" imposed, and a totally different diet introduced. "the change in clothing, housing, food and confinement, together with lonesomeness was too much and in three years nearly one half of the children from the Plains were dead and through with all earthly schools." (7) The harsh, military style of life was enforced by an often harsh disciplinary approach.

And what became of the children who made it through this system, did their experience benefit them? "had it not been the employment of former students by the paternalistic Indian service (agencies and schools) few would have found any use for their training.....on the whole Indian girls did not assimilate into American society....women were trained for an imaginary situation....placing them in a foreign, structured atmosphere accomplished more confusion and hostility than acculturation." (8). Mercifully the schools were costly, and the boarding schools themselves had a fairly short life. However they were moved closer to home where they became local day schools, and these type of schools persisted into the twentieth century.

3. Divide the spoils

The reformers argued that in order for cultural assimilation to take place, the common ownership of land needed to end. To move 'from savagery through barbarism to civilization', wrote Lewis Henry Morgan, private ownership of property was needed. 'It is impossible to overestimate the influence of property in the civilization of mankind.' (9)

Senator Henry Dawes observed that what the Indians needed was 'selfishness, which is at the bottom of civilization. Till these people will consent to give up their lands, and divide them among their citizens so that each can own the land he cultivates, they will not make much more progress.' (10) Cultivation of the land had been a central theme of the myth of the west, begun by Thomas Jefferson who saw individual farmers as the keystone of democracy. Its suitability for native Americans was not questioned; it was a self evident fact.

Tribal land would be 'allotted in severalty' - it would be split up into small family units. It was claimed that the interspersing of white families among those native American ones was desirable, as this would encourage them to grow crops and become self sufficient independent farmers. But in practice this meant profits for the land grabbers who may be seen as a major force behind the reformers' ideas gaining wider acceptance. The Allotment Act which was passed in 1887 became known as the Dawes Act after its instigator. To begin with the Five 'Civilized' Tribes and the Sac, Fox, Sioux and Seneca Nations were allowed to carry on as before, but eventually their lands were also 'redistributed' in the 1890s.

'As with education the reformers failed to achieve their goals, but they once more exacted a heavy price from those they wished to help' (11) Strong resistance to the Act by native Americans was led by Lone Wolf (Kiowa) and Chief Jake (Caddo) and supported by the Creek, who organized a council in their territory. However Lone Wolf lost his battle to challenge allotment in the courts. As Towaconie Jim of the Wichita remarked 'The government treats us as if we had no rights' (12)

Between 1881 and 1900 about half the native Americans' land was taken from them.(13) Astonishingly this policy claimed to be rectifying the wrongs inflicted on native Americans previously, but all that happened was for the injustice to be compounded.

The Dawes Act and its subsequent revisions robbed Native Americans of their newfound homes in Indian Territory. It encouraged white settlement and a land rush followed. They became known as 'sooners' since commonly they 'jumped the gun' and set off to stake their claim before they legally should have.


1. quoted in James Wilson The Earth Shall Weep, 1998, p 292
2. Richard White, It's Your Misfortune and None of my Own, 1991 p109
3. quoted in ibid, 1991 p113
4. See: Fight with Cavalry and Mountain Guns
5. Joel L Steele, 1876 quoted by Robert A Trennert "Educating Indian Girls and Women at Non reservation Boarding Schools 1978-1920" in Hurtado and Iverson (eds)Major Problems in American Indian History p382
6. Luther Standing Bear, one of Pratt's first pupils at Carlisle, quoted in James Wilson op cit, p 313
7. Luther Standing Bear, quoted in James Wilson op cit, p 314-5
8. Robert A Trennert in Hurtado and Iverson (eds)op cit p390-1
9. Quoted in James Wilson op cit, p 298
10. quoted in James Wilson The Earth Shall Weep, 1998, p 300
11. Richard White, op cit p115
12. Angie Debo, A History of the Indians of the United States, 1970, p 302
13. For the figures see Richard White, op cit p115

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Chris Smallbone November2009

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