They knew exactly what they were doing. It wasn’t a poorly thought-out plan. It was brilliantly simple, and in the end, those who came up with the plan were pleased to see how everything came together.
The Federal Indian Policy was one that focused on forcing assimilation onto North American Indians, thereby making it possible to do away with the treaties that had already been signed. The idea was to insist that Indians adopt the clothing worn by non-Natives, adopt the culture and ways of non-Natives, and to drop his or her “Indian-ness” in the process by renouncing all tribal loyalties.
It was hoped that with the passing of the Dawes Act, that the President of the United States of America would be in a position to break up reservation land and parcel it out to Indians who agreed to deny their cultural heritage in its entirety. All a Native American Indian had to do was to enroll with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and then have his name added to the Dawes rolls. Once that was in place, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Secretary of the Interior determined which listed people were eligible to participate in the government program.
The reality of the situation was that those who were registered and deemed eligible to participate in the government program usually resulted in land allotments to heads of households of 160 acres of desert or near-desert lands which were unsuitable for farming. To further worsen the situation, those who were given a parcel of land were unable to farm the land as they couldn’t afford tools, seed, and other necessary farming supplies required. The biggest blow was that the land allotments were taken from the land that was already part of the reservation where the head of household lived with his family members.
But that’s not all. Those deemed eligible for a land allotment still didn’t own the land as the U.S. government held the entitlement in trust for 25 years. After that time had expired, if recipients had proven themselves self-sufficient farmers and all vestiges of tribal culture had been eradicated from the family, they were entitled to keep the land allotment. Of course, the President of the United States could, at his discretion, extend the period of time past the initial 25 years if he felt so inclined without stating his reasons for doing so.
When families failed to meet the requirements placed upon them by the U.S. government, the land reverted back to the federal government for sale. With the passing of the Burke Act in 1906, the 25-year hold was dropped in favor of the head of household being able to pass tests proving he deserved a Certificate Of Competency from the U.S. government. Again, as with the previous practice of holding the entitlement in trust for 25 years, those who were unable to pass the competency tests were not landowners. In such cases, this meant their land was sold to white settlers.
And whether the family was successful or unsuccessful in its efforts, any child born while the head of household was registered in the government program was deemed to be an American citizen and not an Indian. What this meant was that, if the family failed to meet the federal government’s standards, the children born during that time would not have a tribal loyalty and the children born during that time would be shunned by most Americans because of their obvious “Indian-ness.”
Over a period of 23 years, the Dawes Act whittled 138 million acres of North American Indian landholdings to a mere 78 million acres, and the trend of white settlement on previously North American Indian held land into the 20th century continued to whittle that down until the Dawes Act was abolished in 1934. By then, 90 million acres – or two-thirds of Indian treaty lands – was owned by white settlers.
Simply put, the actions of the Dawes Act was one that devastated the reservation systems across the United States of America.
Adding insult to injury, the Dawes Act was instrumental in the creation of federally funded residential school for North American Indian children. At these boarding schools, children were punished for holding on to any aspect of their culture, and the practice of beating the Indian out of the child was deemed by society as acceptable.