Academic journal article The Historian

Allotment of Mineral and Timber Lands on Indian Reservations and the Public Domain

Academic journal article The Historian

Allotment of Mineral and Timber Lands on Indian Reservations and the Public Domain

Article excerpt

WITH THE RAPID advance of the U.S. frontier in the late nineteenth century into areas where Indian reservations had already been established, it was difficult, if not impossible, to find places where the Indians could be protected against white encroachment on tribal lands. Under these circumstances, it seemed to ethnocentric Christian humanitarians that the best solution was to prepare the Indians individually to enter the mainstream of the dominant society and bring an end to tribalism as well as to reservations. Because most Americans were farmers, it seemed reasonable that the Indians be prepared to become self-supporting on allotments segregated from reservations where lands were suited either for farming or for grazing. This process, to be accomplished under the tutelage of agents and missionaries, was authorized by the Dawes Act of 1887 and its subsequent amendments. Although intended to deal exclusively with farming and ranching allotments, the Dawes Act became the vehicle through which both Indians and whites competed for access to, and control of, mineral and timber lands both on reservations and the public domain. In recent years, it is this aspect of the Dawes Act that has drawn the attention of some historians who have accused the Office of Indian Affairs (OIA) of corruption and mismanagement in the allotment of lands.

This article takes a different starting point and suggests that rather than corruption, the OIA misunderstood the circumstances under which mineral and timber lands were allotted to the Indians under the Dawes Act and its amendments. This misunderstanding is partially the result of the image of a corrupt OIA that came out of the latter half of the nineteenth century. Charges of corruption and failure to fulfill the responsibilities of trusteeship are a stereotype that was perpetuated by the press of the early twentieth century and then made a fundamental axiom of historical interpretation. In 1991, for example, Janet McDonnell in her book The Dispossession of the American Indian, 1887-1934 wrote: "Although the Dawes Act clearly specified that the government allot only land classified for farming or grazing in order to create self-sufficient farmers, allotting agents began assigning land that was unsuitable for either of these purposes. Government officials allotted mineral land to individuals in order to open up surplus lands to whites who were anxious to exploit the mineral wealth." (1) This statement perpetuates the stereotype of a corrupt OIA and does not take into account the role of Congress, which frequently passed special acts that departed from the original intent of the Dawes Act.

Following McDonnell's lead, Donald Parman asserted in 1994 that the OIA in 1908 remained both inept and corrupt, giving the impression that nothing had been done to clean up the field service or the office in Washington, whose reputation was badly tarnished in the late nineteenth century. In Parman's words, "The corrupt and inept BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] had completely mismanaged Indian timber, but during the next eighteen months ... the Forest Service [FS] instituted systematic cutting on thirteen reservations, fire control on six, and land use surveys on eleven." (2) Thus, Parman created the impression that progressivism had no effect on the BIA and only temporarily on the FS because Secretary of the Interior Richard Ballinger canceled the improvements. The works of McDonnell and Parman suggest that scholars have failed to recognize that the OIA, as well as other federal agencies, were limited in their administrative activities by the acts of Congress. In effect, they could implement only what Congress had enacted. This article challenges this traditional perspective and suggests that the many mistakes made by the OIA with regard to the implementation of the Dawes Act were more likely the result of mismanagement and overwork rather than outright corruption. The OIA's inefficiency stemmed from a combination of understaffing and the growing volume of work imposed by successive acts of Congress, in addition to a bureaucratic tendency to restrict the independence of OIA field officers. …

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