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The Impact of the Dawes Act on Native Americans

Updated on February 22, 2014
juneaukid profile image

Richard F. Fleck is author of two dozen books, his latest being Desert Rims to Mountains High and Thoreau & Muir Among the Native Americans.

Signing of the Treaty of Fort Laramie 1868
Signing of the Treaty of Fort Laramie 1868 | Source

The Impact of the Dawes Act

In 1868 the Treaty of Fort Laramie was signed by U.S. officials and by tribal leaders of the Lakota Nation including Chief Red Cloud. The treaty allowed the Lakota peoples to maintain their rights to hunt and perform spiritual ceremonies in the Black Hills of South Dakota for as long as grass grows and rivers flow. However, as we know, gold was discovered in them thar hills. Miners came by the hundreds and not only built mines and roads but also towns with saloons, homes and churches. Leaders like Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull decided to gather forces to retaliate.

However, after the Indian tribes of the Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho defeated General George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in southern Montana in late June, 1876, a hundred years after the nation's founding, government troops swarmed into the area to eventually defeat the tribal people and imprison and kill Chief Crazy Horse as well as others.The great bison herds were almost completely killed off by soldiers and non-Indian hunters like Buffalo Bill. By the late 1870's bisonless reservations were created for the Lakota people including Pine Ridge, Rosebud and Standing Rock. Reservation lands were held communally by the tribal people allowing for some degree of freedom to roam and hunt small game but not bison.

Lakota author Joseph M. Marshall III writes in his book To You We Shall Return (2010) that the people of Rosebud Reservation continued, in a limited way, to roam the prairies by following a one hundred mile-stretch of the Little White River that flows through the Rosebud until it empties into the White River in south-central South Dakota.

They set up camp along the shoreline for a few weeks and then moved north by ten miles or so using pony drags to carry their supplies. They would repeat this process until they reached the borderline of the reservation and then turn around to follow the shoreline southward. For a few years it was almost like living in the old times only without bison.

But then came along the Dawes Act of 1887 passed by the U.S. Congress. Massachusetts Senator Henry Laurens Dawes (1816-l903) supposedly had good intentions to assimilate tribal people into mainstream Americans by having them become farmers. This Act, also known as the General Allotment Act, allowed the U.S. President (Grover Cleveland) to break up reservation land which was held in common by the tribe into individual 160 acre parcels to be farmed by the Indians. Once they all became farmers, then there would be no need for the government to oversee the reservation. But the Indians did not wish to become farmers and they could not afford to buy farming implements or to pay individual taxes on these parcels

After a census was taken, each married male was awarded a 160 acre parcel of land and each single male (not female) was awarded an 80 acre parcel to farm after they were "enrolled." Well, as Marshall points out, the math did not work out in the Indian's favor. After the allotment was made, it turned out that there was left over land! This left over land was then sold by the government to non-Indian farmers. Guess what happened to those families who camped every ten miles along the Little White River in the Rosebud Reservation. "You're crossing private property! Get off my land!"

If Henry Dawes' intentions were good, the results of the Dawes Act were hardly good. Though today there remains tribal government, there also remains non-Indian land holdings on a checkered reservation. On the good side, it must be noted that many Indian "farmers" have brought back the bison to their ranches. Thankfully, lean bison meat is very marketable to the outside world.

Readers may wish to read my hub "Spiritual Reclaiming of the Black Hills."

© 2011 Richard Francis Fleck


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    • juneaukid profile image

      Richard Francis Fleck 21 months ago from Denver, Colorado

      Thank you and yes, we have to do all we can for today's tribal peoples.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 21 months ago from San Diego California

      You're a fantastic writer, and as an anarchist leaning (not the Molotov-cocktail throwing type) who pines for the good old days when humans were hunters and gatherers, I look forward to reading more articles along these lines from you. We committed a lot of atrocities against the Native Americans in our misguided attempt to mold them into white people. Great hub!

    • juneaukid profile image

      Richard Francis Fleck 3 years ago from Denver, Colorado

      How true,Pawpawwrites. Thank you.

    • Pawpawwrites profile image

      Jim 3 years ago from Kansas

      I don't think our government ever sighed a treaty they didn't break. Many times the good intentions of the government don't work out too well.

    • juneaukid profile image

      Richard Francis Fleck 3 years ago from Denver, Colorado

      Thank you, glad you're enjoying my hubs on the Lakota people.

    • Dim Flaxenwick profile image

      Dim Flaxenwick 3 years ago from Great Britain

      Great hub. I am definitatley going to read your other one about the Spiritual reclaiming of the Black Hills.

    • juneaukid profile image

      Richard Francis Fleck 4 years ago from Denver, Colorado

      Thanks very much, Eddy.

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 4 years ago from Wales

      A brilliant read on a subject close to my heart. Voted up and looking forward to many more.


    • juneaukid profile image

      Richard Francis Fleck 4 years ago from Denver, Colorado

      Thank you for your commentary Ausseye!

    • profile image

      Ausseye 4 years ago

      Hi june--au-Aussie_kid:

      A brilliant history lesson about what the victors don’t write about. Your history is much our Aussie black on white story, we took they suffered…….bloody hell we took their kid and raised them in white families so they would assimilate. The ranch and the orphanage aren’t so different except you don’t get molested by Priests on a ranch but the orphanage was a different story….we’re just having a parliamentary enquiry into Priestly wrong doing. So we share a difficult history that has much to be ashamed about and even more to champion equality. Great hub and great story of truth….makes you wonder about our view “ everyone is born equal, with the right to…….”. Makes flying HP worthwhile.

    • juneaukid profile image

      Richard Francis Fleck 5 years ago from Denver, Colorado

      Thanks again for your comments. You may be pleased to know that a brand new national park Badlands National Park, South Dakota is completely under the governance of the Lakota people.

    • cam8510 profile image

      Chris Mills 5 years ago from Missoula, Montana at least until August 2018

      I enjoy when the light of reason is shined on the history of our country. I have no question that there were some whites who, out of good intentions, did some very damaging things. But it seems there were others who had no good intentions. I hope progress can be made to remedy the situation and allow Native Americans to use their land as they please. Than you for this enlightening article.

    • juneaukid profile image

      Richard Francis Fleck 5 years ago from Denver, Colorado

      I think so, too.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      I think much of what was done with the Indians was done with good intentions but ignorance about cultural differences..

    • juneaukid profile image

      Richard Francis Fleck 7 years ago from Denver, Colorado

      Yes, it is kind of crazy. Thanks for your comment.

    • Granny's House profile image

      Granny's House 7 years ago from Older and Hopefully Wiser Time

      It is so sad what they did to the Native Indians. They also some what did this to the natives in Alaska. That is why they still do not trust the whites

    • juneaukid profile image

      Richard Francis Fleck 7 years ago from Denver, Colorado

      Thank you, ndnfoodie530!

    • ndnfoodie530 profile image

      ndnfoodie530 7 years ago from Nothern California

      Wopila! Goot writing! ;)

    • juneaukid profile image

      Richard Francis Fleck 7 years ago from Denver, Colorado

      Thanks very much for your comments.

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 7 years ago from East Coast, United States

      Richard - it seems to me that historically, treaties are just worthless. I've been watching the old Tudors series and all they did was sign treaties to break soon after. It has gotten so that when they sign a treaty we laugh. But it isn't funny and the long standing practice of these betrayed promises has caused so much suffering.

    • sweetie1 profile image

      sweetie1 7 years ago from India

      Hi June, very nice hub about the history of USA. I would keep my judgement on this as i m outsider but very nice hub.

    • juneaukid profile image

      Richard Francis Fleck 7 years ago from Denver, Colorado

      Glad you liked this--that Dawes Act was something else!

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 7 years ago from London, UK

      Juneaukid, you have done another materpiece and a feast of readin gfor me. It is evenine and I just was going to finish and then I saw your name and knew I'll be in for a treat. Thank you for much for giving me so much pleasure.