July 23, 2001

The Dawes General Allotment Act was an attempt to cultivate new creatures from the Indians. The reservation system had tried to do the same thing, but the Reservation system had been vague, aimed in a very general direction.

The Dawes act was a direct result of the Lake Mohonk conference.

It looked at what America was itself, and decided that the old American work ethic should be promoted among Indians.

· The old Puritan ethic: "The devil makes work for idle hands."

· The Horatio Alger Ethic: Once can advance ones self through hard work; pull ones self up by one’s bootstraps.

· Social Darwinism Ethic: If the United States were to be a superior nation, it would require hard work.

All the above contributed to the idea that the work ethic should be promoted among the Indians. The way to accomplish this was: give them actual land ownership. So the Dawes act provided for land distribution to Indians:

· Head of Household got 160 acres.

· Adult male got 80 acres

· Male Children got 40 acres.

The idea was that if the Indians would accept the concept of Private property, they could advance themselves.

Obviously some land was good for ranching and farming, other land was not. The idea was all this would be taken into consideration.

This, of course, was aimed at the very heart of Indian culture. They had no concept of land ownership. The idea was this would get to the heart of the problem. If they could be convinced to accept land ownership, they would be well on their way to being acculturated.

The Dawes Act also provided that they would not get title to the land right away. Rather, the Government would hold it in trust for 25 years. The feeling was that, if they were given title right away, they might trade it or be swindled out of it, as they didn’t really understand ownership. The trust would protect them from losing their land. The thinking was that, within one generation, they would understand and accept land ownership.

Land was to be allocated on a first come/fist served basis. The thought was that the Indians would then hurry to get the best land. All surplus land left over was to be sold to white farmers or homesteaded to them.

This was perhaps the inferior motive involved; transfer of ownership to Whites.

In 1880, there were 155 acres allocated to Indians under the reservation system. If every Indian head of household got 160 acres, the total allotment would be only 50 million acres. Would free up 100 million acres of land for whites.

One who agreed to the deal was immediately granted U.S. citizenship, and citizenship in the state where he resided. He could possibly vote, sit on juries, hold office, and send kids to public schools. All of this depended upon the laws in the individual states, of course, and states found all sorts of ways to prevent minority participation.

This would demonstrate American democratic ideals, and also bring Children into the American political system. This was a drastic change from the reservation system. The idea was, one could advance Americanism by advancing education and religion.



Education hoped to be the key to assimilation and acculturation. There were three types of federally funded schools:

· The Boarding School. The idea was to remove the young child from the reservation and immerse him in Western values. It was considered the most effective way to get the "Indian out of the Indian." It was set up as a paramilitary operation. Students had their hair cut short, there was military discipline (similar to a military school); students were required to farm, labor, perform chores in addition to their school work.

· Reservation Day School: This was for adults on the Reservation. The idea was to teach them job skills, such as carpentry, cooking, sewing, domestic work, even ranching and farming skills. It was something of a Technical School education.

· The Mission School: This was for reservations too remote from white population, and with a population too small for a day school. It was set up like the old Spanish Catholic mission schools.

The ultimate objective of all three was to "Americanize" the Indians.

Children and adults were instructed in American patriotism, and gratitude for the beneficence of the Government. This was really taking the Indian out of the Indian. The goal was the "laudable ambition to contribute to the nation’s prosperity." (So said some idiot).

In 1887 as a sort of testimonial, a young Indian child was brought to the Lake Mohonk conference from school. He told the conference, "I believe in Education because I believe that it will kill the Indian in me and leave the man and the citizen.

Government spending indicates the intent of the effort. In 1880, the government had allocated only $150,000.00 annually for Indian education. (This was for all Indians in the U.S.; hardly adequate); under the Dawes Act, in 1888, One Million dollars was allocated for Indian education. There was also a guaranteed increase in allocations annually. Almost a ten-fold increase in eight years.

This was an actual commitment to the principles of the Lake Mohonk Conference.

Protestant Christianity was also encouraged. Congress designated certain denominations to work on certain reservations. Individual denominations were responsible for funding its own efforts. There was to be a single religious effort on each reservation; for instance, one would be all Baptist, another all Methodist, etc. Prior to the Dawes act, there had been no designation of religious grouping.

The Dawes act was touted as the answer to the "Indian problem." It was believed that Americanization would occur in about 25 years. However, there were still problems.

· Many Indians complied, but many others did not. They resisted the idea of claiming land as their own. They ignored the provisions for land ownership; as it was too alien for them to conceive of such a thing.

· Conditions on the reservation prevented things happening very quickly. Time was needed to construct and staff schools, etc. Various denominations squabbled over which reservations each would evangelize; and in the meantime, the quality of life on the reservation spiraled downward.

Some Indians tried to split the difference, and "walk in two worlds." That is, be part Indian and part white. Some succeeded, some did not. Many Indians were torn between the two cultures.

Impoverishment of Indians continued to be a problem. In 1880, the Sioux experienced drought and floods, which destroyed their crops; plus they did not have enough farm tools, work animals, etc. Additionally, Indian agents were stealing supplies and selling them to private merchants. Conditions on the reservations had gotten so bad by the 1880’s that the Indians considered them death camps. They were very skeptical about the Dawes Act.

The Sioux were particularly p.o.’ed. Sitting Bull was p. o.’ed and left the Pine Ridge reservation. He took several hundred Indians with him. The Sioux began leaving the reservation wholesale.

A Paiute Indian named Wavoka claimed to have experienced a vision. He saw the Indians freed from government authority, and from whites altogether. He saw those who had died returning to earth, and the earth filled with buffalo, elk, deer, with no reservations, no diseases. Literally the "happy hunting ground." "Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear."

Wavoka claimed that the Great Spirit had told him to spread his vision to all Indians. They must truly and fundamentally be converted to the original Indian spirituality and have no connection to whites or white products. They must cut off any aspect of white spiritual culture.

Wavoka believed one could regain the true Indian spirit by means of a Ghost Dance; this would create a vision. It became known as Ghost Dance Religion. It was all very appealing to the Indians. It was very similar to the Christian Fundamentalist movement – back to the fundamentals.

Wavoka traveled to other reservations in his area. Because of his age, he could not travel far; but other reservations from all over the country sent people (delegates) to him. Indians traveled from South Dakota, New Mexico, California and Washington state. The message was: "Dance, and return to your old tribal values."

The Indians of the Pine Ridge reservation really bought into this. They moved out of their plank homes and erected tepees. They began wearing traditional Indian clothes, and speaking only native Indian tongues. (this had been forbidden). The Sioux danced continually, were buying into Wavoka’s vision wholesale. More and more Indians were joining.

The story was picked up by the press, which photographed Indians dancing. The reporters often exaggerated the stories so they could sell their stories. Some said it was the beginning of another Indian uprising, a new Indian war, etc. Some took the ghost dance completely out of context; others lied, just to sell stories.

Because of the newspaper reports, the President authorized the army to go to South Dakota. Army officials demanded that the Ghost dance cease. At this point, the Sioux concluded that perhaps violence would be necessary to bring about the vision of the ghost dance.

Many Sioux began wearing a Ghost Shirt. It was a traditional Indian shirt made of hides with icons, symbols of one’s spiritual vision on it. They believed that if one completely believed in the magic of the ghost dance, then bullets would bounce off the ghost shirt.

This is a sad commentary on how desperate these Indians really were. They were ready to believe anything that would offer them relief.

In the Winter of 1890, several bands of Sioux left the reservation. They believed that if they left the reservation, the revival of the ghost vision would come about sooner. One band, led by Chief Big Foot, comprised of 300 – 500 Indians, including women and children, went into the Black Hills, and were headed to Canada.

It was cold in South Dakota. (No shit, it was Winter). Supplies ran out, and it was decided that the best policy was to wait on the army to catch up with them, and thereby rescue them. The army did catch up, and provided food, clothing, etc. and began the escort back to Pine Ridge. Sadly, many of the soldiers had read press reports of an Indian insurrection, and anticipated violence.

The group reached Wounded Knee Creek on December 28, 1890, on their way back to the reservation. The officer in charge decided to camp for the night, and check the Indians for weapons next morning at first light before marching on to the reservation. The Indians remained camped for the night surrounded by troops.

The next morning, December 29, 1890, some weapons were found on the search, most traditional weapons, and one or two pistols. One Indian had a repeating rifle, which he refused to relinquish. He had taken it from an enemy (counted coup), and it was an emblem and reminder of his bravery. A fistfight broke out, and both sides "emptied the bench." One or two soldiers were apparently stabbed or shot; and as a result, the soldiers on the outside periphery opened up on the Indians with all weapons: rifles, Gatling guns, even cannon. Those who ran were chased down and shot; including Big Foot and his wife.

After the smoke cleared, between 200-300 Indians had been killed. The survivors were taken to the church at Pine Creek where, because it was the Christmas season, there was a large sign that read: "Peace on earth; good will toward men."

The actual number of victims is not known. The army hired civilians to bury them in a mass grave, and paid them per body. The civilians are believed to have inflated the count in order to increase their pay. Highest estimate is 300 dead.

Wounded Knee was considered a "Battle" until 1970, when it was redesignated a massacre. Some soldiers were killed, but the army’s own investigation revealed that they were killed by friendly fire.

The ghost dance quickly evaporated. Many were killed wearing their ghost shirts; so they knew that Wavoka’s vision would not happen. Also, as a result of the massacre, the Dawes Act was implemented in force.

Wounded Knee is considered the final event in the conquest of the Indians by white culture. It marks the dividing line between old and new Indian/white relations.

In 1970, a tombstone monument was placed on the mass grave for the victims of the massacre. It was at this point that the designation was changed to massacre. This is considered a victory for modern Indian affairs.

After Wounded Knee, Washington concentrated on implementing the Dawes act. At that point, the Indians were suffering a 60 per cent loss of land, which went into white hands. Many whites still considered the Indians to be an impediment to progress.

In 1890, Oklahoma territory, formerly Indian territory, was opened to white settlement. It was declared free for the taking, and was grabbed up in a "land rush." Congress had passed legislation, which removed the land from Indian control.

Some Indians had taken land, but fell on hard times. The land was poor, they had no farm skills, and as a result, many leased their land to whites.

In 1894 – 295 Indians leased Dawes Act property to whites.


1897 – 1287 leases, annually.

1900 – 2590 leases on annual basis.

Farming was simply not a way of life for the Indians.

Also, if an Indian died and had no male heirs, his land passed by virtue of the Dead Indian Act of 1902, which said the land reverted back to the Government, which could then sell it to white farmers.

Many Indians became American Citizens:

1890 5,307 made citizens

1900 53,000

1901 100,000

1905 120,000 became citizens. This was roughly one half the American Indian population; which had been severely decimated.

Even though they were citizens, many Indians could not vote or sit on juries. States used poll taxes, literacy tests, etc. to keep minorities from voting. Race consciousness was a big issue.

Education also underwent major changes for Indians:

In 1905 there were: 25 Boarding schools off reservations.

93 Boarding schools on Reservation

139 day schools with 4,399 students.

There were many problems. Most of the teachers were poorly trained, and racism pervaded the teaching staff. Students were taught "classical curriculum," which included English literature, philosophy, Latin and Greek, etc. This was totally irrelevant to the life they would need to live as adults.

Behavior management and punishment were often severe. One school used a tin box, approx. 4 x 6 into which the child was confined, in the hot sun. Punishment could continue for days. Some actually died from heat exposure. Often time, food was deprived as a form of punishment. Physical beatings were also commonly used. One some occasions, a child had his head pushed into the toilet and the toilet flushed for the offense of using his native tongue.

Living conditions were horrendous, with little or no hygiene. Toilets were the exception, rather than the rule. At one school, there were two toilets for 80 girls. Linens, towels, etc. were quite often soiled, there might not even be soap. Bugs were a big problem all over. In the kitchen, workers had no regard for hygiene; often served children on plates that had been used before, but not washed.

The Dawes Act did follow through with its goals.

By 1900, some Indians were adapting; adjusting. But then a new organization was formed, the Society of American Indians which championed their cause ferociously. It was a pan-Indian organization founded in 1911, which championed assimilation.

One of the co-founders of the SAI was Carlos Montezuma. He was part Apache, had been brought up in a boarding school, and had become a successful physician. The system had worked for him, and he had become an "honorary white man."

Montezuma said that it had worked so well for him, that assimilation was the path that all Indians should pursue. However, he did have one point of contention: If the Indians were to assimilate, then the Bureau of Indian Affairs would have to be abolished; otherwise it would always designate a certain class distinction. He traveled the U.S. preaching the gospel of assimilation, and gained many followers.

A problem arose because many Indians were upset with the Government, which had insisted they disavow certain practices in their spiritual lives. One was the use of Peyote in their spiritual services. The Indians believed that by getting high on this stuff, the hallucinations actually produced visions. Another problem was the Sundance. The Government had declared it illegal. The Indians had argued that they could not make a spiritual connection without the Sundance; the government had replied that if they were Christians, they wouldn’t need it anyway.

One rather resourceful group of Indians tried to form their own Church, the Native American Church, in which they incorporated the use of Peyote and the Sundance. They claimed First Amendment Freedom of Religion as protection. It didn’t work.

In 1919, John Collier, (a white man) moved to Albuquerque, N.Mex., from New York, and visited an Indian reservation at Taos. He was very impressed with the partial assimilation of the Pueblo Indians there. He was also impressed with the Spiritual awareness of the Indians. They seemed to actually live it. He commenced a study of Indian life and became quite mesmerized by it.

Collier was very well educated, but still quite taken by what he had seen, and became an advocate/champion of Indian reform. Between 1919-1923, he studied Indian culture, visited Indian areas.

By 1923, Collier was concerned that Indian culture would vanish if not protected. He was opposed to Americanization, and said that the Indians should be allowed to re-invigorate their culture and traditional ways.

A number of criticisms have been aimed at Collier, not all of them untrue. He has been accused of being an Idealist; of only being concerned with Indian culture West of the Mississippi, and of speaking of culture (singular), not cultures, (plural). There were many Indian cultures. He seemed to overlook the culture/tradition of the Eastern Woodlands Indians.

Collier said that America was exceptional because of its mixture of cultures. (George W. Bush said something similar: "Our greatness comes from our diversity.") Many had merged to form a composite "American" culture. But, the qualities of separate cultures should not vanish. Therefore, the Indian culture should be preserved, not allowed to vanish.

Collier had the support of a number of other Progressives, all of whom thought that there was value in a multicultural society. Among those who supported him were Zane Grey, D. H. Laurence, Edgar Lee masters, and Carl Sandburg. Also Harold Ickes, a lawyer and champion of the helpless. (Grandson by the same name worked for Clinton Administration.

Major periodicals and journals (New York Times, Atlantic Monthly, etc) supported Collier’s call for cultural preservation. They spoke of the "vanishing Indian syndrome."

Collier, Ickes, and others formed the American Indian Defense Association (AIDA) in 1923. The association argued:

· The Dawes Act should be scrapped, Indian land allotment ended, and instead, Indian communities should be allowed to hold land communally, as they had traditionally done.

· All tribal traditions and customs should be defended. Tribes should enjoy the right of self-determination.

· Tribal governments should have the same rights as mayors, town councils, and other officials in towns and villages, including the right to pass their own laws.

· Better health care for Indians should be promoted.

This program was widely supported by Progressives and other reformers. They lobbied Congress for a survey of Indian life in America.

In 1926, Congress authorized the Secretary of the Interior to have the Institute for Government Research (A private concern, still operating, but now known as the Brookings Institution) to conduct a survey of Indian reservations. The avowed purpose was to show that the Dawes Act had not worked.

The report was issued 18 months later, in 1928. Lewis Meriam had been charge of the survey. He was a remarkable choice. Meriam had hired scientists, anthropologists, physicians, sociologists, (every imaginable sort of "ologist.") to compile the report. He was not concerned with its outcome, but was rather extremely concerned with compiling and analyzing the evidence. He included Collier as a member of his team because of his credentials as an expert on Indian history, and Ickes since he was a lawyer.

The report, issued in 1928, was known as the Meriam Report of 1926. It was a copious report, over 800 pages, and is extremely detailed. Prof says it is best primary source one can find.