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This Day in Labor History: February 8, 1887


On February 8, 1887, President Grover Cleveland signed the Dawes Severalty Act into law. The Dawes Act created a process to split up Indian reservations in order to create individual parcels of land and then sell the remainder off to white settlers. One of the worst laws in American history, the Dawes Act is not only a stark reminder of Euro-American colonialism and the dispossession of indigenous peoples, but also of the role dominant ideas of work on the land have in promoting racist and imperialist ends.

We might not think of the Dawes Act as labor history. But I want to make the beginning of a case that it is absolutely central to American labor history, a point I will expand upon in the future. Labor history is not just unionism. It is histories and traditions of work. The Dawes Act was absolutely about destroying traditions of Native American labor and replacing it with European notions of rural work. That it did so while opening more land to white people was a central benefit.

Now, it’s worth noting that there is nothing like a “Native American tradition of work,” now or ever. There were thousands of different ideas of labor. Eventually, I’m going to try and touch on a few specific examples of 18th and 19th century Native American labor. The Dawes Act was largely directed at the Native American populations that had developed their cultures and work systems around horses and nomadism. Acquiring horses by the early 18th century, some peoples such as the Crow, Comanche, Utes, Blackfeet, and others made the conscious decision to convert to horse-bound hunting cultures, which created entirely new ideas of work that included men on long hunts, women treating bison hides, horse pastoralism, and other labors to create a bison economy. These choices allowed them to resist white encroachment with real military might. It also meant they received quite sizable reservations when the U.S. signed treaties with the tribes in the post-Civil War period.

“Cree Indians Impounding Buffaloes,” from William Hornaday’s The Extermination of the American Bison.

At the same time, white Americans were populating the West through the auspices of the Homestead Act of 1862. Beginning with the Northwest Ordinance, white Americans had gridded the land to sell it off in 160 acre parcels. This led to the relatively orderly (and lawsuit-free) population of the West as Native Americans had been pushed off. The Homestead Act encouraged this process across the Great Plains. Although it had little immediate effect because of the Civil War, beginning in the late 1860s, white Americans began pouring into the Plains.

White ideas of rural labor on the Great Plains.

So when whites saw relatively few Native Americans holding legal title to vast tracts of lands on the Great Plains and American West, it offended both their notions of race and work. Whites saw land as something to be “worked” in very specific ways. Work meant the individual ownership of land or resources that create capital accumulations as part of a larger market economy. Proper labor “improved” upon the land; because Native American conceptualized the land differently, they did no legitimate work. The actual tilling of land for cash crops was the only appropriate labor upon the land, once existent resources like timber, furs, or minerals were extracted. The land did all sorts of work for Native Americans before 1887. It fed the bison upon which they had based their economy since they acquired horses in the early 18th century. It provided the materials for their homes and spaces for their camps. It also provided fodder for those horses. To whites, this was not work. It was waste typical of a lesser people.

The Dawes Act split up the reservation lands so that each person received 160 acres of land, the amount a white settler would receive under the Homestead Act. After allotment, the remainder of the reservations could be divided under the normal methods of the Homestead Act. Native Americans could not sell their land for 25 years. At the end of that time, they had to prove their competency at farming, otherwise the land reverted back to the federal government for sale to whites. By trying to turn Native Americans into good Euro-American farmers, the Dawes Act also upset the relationship between gender roles and work among many tribes. To generalize, men hunted and women farmed. But with the single-family breadwinner ideology of whites thrust upon them, it turned farming into men’s work, which many Native Americans resisted and resented.

Naturally, there was the usual language of concern for Native Americans in creating the Dawes Act. Cleveland claimed he saw this as an improvement on Native Americans wandering around their desolate reservations. I don’t want to underrate how tough those lands were by 1887; with the decline of the bison, an intentional effort by the federal government to undermine food sources and the willingness of Indians to resist conquest, poverty and despair was real. But of course, whites had created this situation and the “solution” of dispossessing Native Americans of the vast majority of their remaining lands was hardly a solution at all.

Allotted land for sale.

The Dawes Act devastated Native American landholdings. In 1887, they held 138 million acres. By 1900, that had already fallen to 78 million acres and by 1934 to 48 million acres. About 90,000 people lost all title to land. Even if Native Americans did try to adapt to Euro-American notions of labor on the land, the land itself was mostly too poor, desolate, and dry to farm successful crops. The Indian schools such as Carlisle continued this reshaping of Native American work, theoretically teaching students skills they could take back to the reservations, but there was little use for many of these skills in the non-existent post-Dawes Act indigenous economies. Plus that goal was always secondary to killing Indian languages, religions, and traditional workways.

The Dawes Act finally ended in 1934 with the U.S. Indian Reorganization Act.

There were many acts and events that ruptured the relationship between indigenous labor and the land in the late 19th century American West. The Dawes Act is among the most important. By thinking of the Dawes Act in terms of the relationship between nature, labor, and racial notions of proper work upon the land, we can expand our understanding of both labor history and the history of Euro-American conquest of the West.

This is the 51st post in this series. The rest of the series is archived here.

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