The Heritage of
Without question the most important factor affecting Indians in 1900 was the 1887 Dawes Act. This legislation and later amendments instituted severalty or the distribution of tribally owned reservation land to individual Indians. Land allotment, however, embodied more than property rights. The architects of the policy aimed at broader goals, such as destroying tribal authority, eradicating native religions, and changing Indians into farmers. In short, severalty sought a complete transformation of Indian life.
In a sense, the Dawes Act offered little that was new. From the start, federal policy had been directed toward converting Indians from hunters to farmers and to a general acceptance of other aspects of white life. Tribal autonomy suffered a severe blow in 1871 when Congress prohibited future treaties with Indians. Reformers and federal officials repeatedly advocated severalty as the next logical step, but the general allotment bills introduced into Congress after 1879 failed to pass. Several tribes, however, had undergone allotment as a result of special federal enactments, and approximately 11,000 allotments existed prior to 1885. The importance of the Dawes Act, hence, was not that it embodied a new policy, but that it permitted individual assignment of lands on all reservations except for the Five Civilized Tribes (Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Seminoles) and a few groups in Indian Territory, Nebraska, and New York.
The provisions of the Dawes Act authorized the president to allot any reservation considered suited to agriculture or grazing. Lands were to be distributed to all enrolled Indians: 160 acres to heads of families; 80 acres to single individuals over eighteen and to orphans; and 40 acres to unmarried persons under eighteen. These amounts could be doubled on reservations suited only to grazing. To guard against the sale of allotments, a common problem in earlier severalty experiences, the legislation placed the individual assignments under federal trust for twenty-five years. This meant that the allotments could not be encumbered, and courts later held that trust lands could not be taxed until patented in fee simple. The act, however,