The Dawes Act was a piece of legislation passed in the United States in 1887, remaining in effect until 1934. The Act had far-reaching effects on Native American society and culture, and some people suggest that it contributed directly to the fragmentation and gradual dissolution of many Native American communities. The reasoning behind the Dawes Act was allegedly the protection of Native American people, but many people believe that the Act was actually deliberately designed to fracture the Indian community in the United States, while also opening up Indian lands to settlement.
Under the Dawes Act, any Native American who applied would be given an allotment of private land, which would be held in trust for 25 years before the deed would be turned over to the owner. Depending on how the land would be used, the allotment might be 160, 80, or 40 acres, and people were allowed to choose their own allotments. Upon taking ownership of the land, the owner would also be entitled to full United States citizenship.
However, the Dawes Act came with some strings attached. First of all, the land to be broken into allotments was chosen by the United States government, and it was often of inferior quality. Often, Indian landowners were unable to live or farm on the land, and they were therefore forced to sell it, typically causing ownership to pass from the Native American community to white settlers. They were also required to Anglicize their names, ostensibly to make the paperwork easier to handle, but more probably due to a concerted effort to suppress Native American culture.
Land ownership itself was a difficult concept for Native Americans to grasp, as they historically lived collectively, and did not believe that people could “own” land. Under the Dawes Act, tribes often found themselves fragmented, losing their core identity, language, and culture. In addition, the allotments were broken up by the descendants of land owners, causing even further fragmentation. Many frustrated children ended up selling their portions, often at a steep discount.
While the Dawes Act was supposed to promote land ownership among Native Americans, the net result was a huge jump in the number of landless Native Americans. Because their tribes had been heavily fragmented, descendants of many of these individuals have trouble establishing their eligibility for classification as “Native Americans,” along with all of the benefits that entails. The breaking up of native lands under the Dawes Act also contributed to the loss of Native American culture, traditions, and languages.