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It was 132 years ago, February 8, 1887, that Congress passed the Dawes Act, authorizing the President to survey, and then divide for selling, Indian lands. Fathered by Republican Senator Henry Dawes of Massachusetts, the Act sought to have these peoples assimilate into American culture.
Most Native Americans lived in a tribal society, where private ownership was non-existent, as everything belonged to the tribe. By 1887, with the thought that the Indian Wars were dwindling down, the United States government believed that if the Indians were to be more like the American citizens, then co-existence would be possible.
The Act gave to those Indians that were interested 160 acres of free land on the reservation to every head of the family. A single male without any family ties above the age of maturity, 18, could receive 80 acres, whilst a younger male would receive 40 acres. American citizens could also privately purchase this newly divided land.
An added bonus to those that left their tribal ancestry was the gaining of American citizenship. The original act applied mainly to the tribes in the Midwest and Southwest, but eventually extended to all interested living on reservations.
To help the Indians keep their land, the government would also protect them from land speculators who would try and devalue their possessions in order to gain it. By agreeing to live on the land, the Indians had to do so for at least 25 years. In the spirit of assimilation, the Dawes Act is related closely through several amendments with Indian Schools as well, all in the attempt to Americanize the Indians.
About the Author
Ronald G. Mayer Jr. is a Native of Arizona and a graduate of the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University. He teaches history at Liberty Traditional School in Prescott Valley where he resides. He looks forward to a career as a Professor of History.