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The Impact of the Dawes Act on Native Americans
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."
Desert Rims to Mountains High
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
© 2011 Richard Francis Fleck