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The Long Reach of the Dawes Act

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One of the worst laws of the late 19th century was the 1887 Dawes Act. Allowing the government to gut the Indian reservations by providing small allotments to individual Native Americans and selling the rest of the land to the highest bidder was part of the long-term project to destroy Native American life and culture, along with Indian schools, language eradication, ending of hunting rights, etc. Allotment reduced Indian held land from 138 million acres in 1887 to 48 million in 1934, when the Indian Reorganization Act ended the allotment period.

This attack on Native American life is widely considered one of the darkest shadows of American history.

Even today, the Dawes Act’s effects screw over Native Americans. Alleen Brown has a powerful, must-read story at In These Times on how the splitting of the land in a haphazard way has created a nonfunctional property system that still makes it extremely difficult for individuals on the reservations to develop their land or even find out what specific piece of land they actually own.

The bureaucratic system birthed from fractionation makes it almost impossible for Indians to actually live on or develop land they officially own. Owners’ options vary, but they are invariably complicated because so many people hold title to the same piece of land. Any tribal or individual decision on land use has to be agreed upon by at least 50 percent of a tract’s owners. (The average allotment has 17 owners, but some have hundreds.) And, as Redthunder discovered, buying out co-owners is complicated by banks’ unwillingness to deal with land held in trust by the government.

Cris Stainbrook is the executive director of the Minnesota-based Indian Land Tenure Foundation, which seeks to put all reservation land back under Indian control and management. “Indian people are smart enough to do this stuff. But the amount of persistence it takes is so far beyond what non-Indians have to go through, you can’t even imagine,” he says.

For example, Pine Ridge’s land exchange program, to which No Braid applied, requires no fewer than 12 back and forth interactions among various tribal and governmental offices.

We might regret the European conquest of the Americas. We lament Columbus and Custer, smallpox and alcohol. Many of us support increased Native American sovereignty, whether it be Indian gaming or Makah whaling. We see (falsely for the most part but that’s for a different post) that Native Americans were proper stewards of the land that we whites should emulate.

Despite all this lip service, we remain unwilling as a society to deal effectively with the long-term economic and social problems on the reservations. We don’t make it a national priority to hook up the Navajo reservation to the electrical grid, to provide jobs at Pine Ridge, or to solve the land quandaries of the Dawes Act.

It’s hardly the job of paternalistic whites to claim the right to solve all Indian problems. However, for all the talk about the history of Native American-white relations, even under Democratic presidents it has never been a government priority to provide the economic or political support to give Indians the opportunities they want. Instead, most people on the reservations live forgotten about by the government and most Americans, with few job opportunities, little decent food, and continued confusion over the land that is their birthright.

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