Monday, February 08, 2010

Bad Days in American History: February 8, 1887

On this date in 1887, the U.S. Congress passed the Dawes Act, breaking up Native American lands.

By 1887, the white assault on indigenous people was nearly complete. By the Civil War, Native peoples east of the Mississippi has either been subjugated or driven west. On the West Coast, the rise of European-American settlement was causing havoc on indigenous peoples and the relatively decentralized tribes west of the Cascades and Sierra were precipitiously declining. Beginning during the war, the U.S. army and average civilians engaged in an all-out assault against the last holdout of indigenous peoples, the Great Plains, a process that would continue well into the twentieth century.

The 1870s saw most of the Plains Indians capitulate to white domination. Whites hunted the bison out, undermining food sources. Smallpox and other diseases continued ripping through the population. Alcoholism and suicide were on the rise. Whites took children from their homes and sent them to Indian schools in the east. There they faced physical punishment for speaking their own language. Racist whites commonly murdered random Indians. And despite the occasional victory such as at the Little Bighorn in 1876, superior white numbers and military force completely overwhelmed indigenous people.

Whites originally chose Oklahoma as Indian Territory because the government figured no whites would want to live there. They saw the Plains as the Great American Desert. But by the 1860s, these attitudes had changed. Whites wanted the Plains to build new cities, farms, ranches, and railroads. How to deal with the remnant Indian populations was the first question. First was to assume they would go away over time. Most Americans in the late 19th century believed Indians would be extinct in a century or so. A big boost to the new field of anthropology was the necessary to collect languages, art, and cultural artifacts from the Indians before they went extinction. We could keep them in museum collections like the passenger pigeon. 

The other way to deal with the Indians was to find ways to expropriate their land. This process had already begun. The post-Civil War strategy to isolate Indians on worthless land known as reservations always came with the unwritten assumption that these borders could change at whites' discretion. The various Sioux peoples were given the Black Hills during the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, but the subsequent discovery of gold forced them into much more marginal land east of the Hills.

Still, whites were constantly looking for new ways to take Indian lands. Massachusetts Senator Henry Dawes came upon a plan in the 1880s. Whites always talked a big game about assimiliating Indians into white culture. They never really cared about this much, but it made a good excuse to destroy Indian cultures. So Dawes introduced a bill into the Senate requiring Indians to take up 160 acre plots on their own reservations. Since their populations were dwlinding and since they used much of their land for hunting anyway, this created millions of acres Indians wouldn't farm. The government could then sell this land to whites.

And so they did. This process, known as allotment, opened up Oklahoma for white settlement and allowed whites to buy cheap lands across the Plains. It helped destroy traditional hunting cultures on the Plains, as this now private property couldn't be used for hunting. The Dawes Act was another important step on the road to forcing indigenous people under white domination. The act remained in effect until 1934, during which period oil was being discovered on Oklahoma lands still owned by indigenous peoples. Whites then developed new ways to steal the oil money, declaring most Indians unable to manage such resources and giving the money to white agents to oversee. Of course, most Indians never saw a dime of it.

In the 47 years the Dawes Act was in effect, 90 million acres were stolen from Indians, approximately 2/3 of their land in 1887. Around 90,000 people were left with no land at all.