Each Sunday at 3:30 p.m., First Nations News & Views is posted at Daily Kos. The series is designed to provide a window into the world of American Indians, each edition reporting on a small number of stories, both the good and the not-so-good, and providing a reminder of where we came from, what we are doing now and what matters to us. The following diary is a rewritten version of two of those stories from the most recent, fourth edition. Other editions can be found here. I urge you to visit.
(Library of Congress)
In the past year there has finally been a move to repair some of devastation caused by the Dawes Act, only the second move in nearly 80 years. I'll get to that in a minute. But, despite this belated remedial action (forced by the courts), much of the damage can never be fixed. Modern American Indian society was shaped in great part by what Cleveland signed into law that day five generations ago. Does what happened so long ago matter today? It matters to Indians.
Before the Dawes Act and a few additional laws were effectively repealed by the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, 90 million acres had been wrenched from communally owned Indian land, leaving just a third of what the tribes had held in 1886, the year Geronimo, the last organized warrior, surrendered and was shipped off to prison. What land wasn't directly taken was "allotted" to individuals. Grabbing much of the land and dividing the rest coincided with a stepped-up effort to destroy Native culture, religion and governance, in effect, "Indianness." The land was never returned. Today, many reservations are peppered with non-Indian enclaves as a consequence.
Named after Sen. Henry L. Dawes, who headed the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, the law was the culmination of practices toward Indians that had begun within a decade of the Pilgrim landing at Plymouth. Boiled down to their essence, those policies said to Indians: Get out of our way, or else. Even getting out of the way often wasn't enough to prevent the "or else."
The Dawes Act itself arose at least partly out of the influence of a book written by Helen Hunt Jackson in 1881, A Century of Dishonor. It was the Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee of the 19th Century, documenting the bloodthirsty avarice and corruption that had suffused Indian-U.S. relations all those decades since the first war in 1788. Originally, the book was about brutal removal of the Ponca tribe to Oklahoma, but Jackson later expanded her coverage to other atrocities. She didn't live to see the Dawes Act passed, but she would no doubt have approved.
The intent was assimilation, "killing the Indian to save the man," turning Indians into farmers of acreage they held individually, altering gender roles, shattering kinship connections, breaking up communal land and tribal government, and, ultimately, wiping out reservations altogether. Officials thought this would be better for everyone as Indians adopted norms of the dominant culture. It would certainly be good for transferring some prime real estate.
To take full possession of any land a woman had to be officially married. All inherited land passed through the male head of household. This broke the tradition of tribes with matrilineal heritages.
"Surplus" land, that is, the clever euphemism for what was left after allotments, was flung open to white settlement and ownership. That was the provision's most likeable quality for congressmen and businessmen who would just have soon have slaughtered or starved every Indian still then alive. Half the Great Sioux Reservation was thus sold to outsiders after Indian allotments were distributed.
As Youngstown University Asst. Prof. G. Mehera Gerardo has noted, even before the ink was dry on the act, speculators were making deals to trade or buy Indian lands. But they mostly postponed development for fear the government would confiscate what they had shadily acquired before the trust period expired. Thus were many Indians able to keep to their traditional ways of life for another decade, treating the land as if it were still held communally, even though they'd already bargained their allotments away. State and local governments soon found ways around the law to permit outsiders to buy allotments. Hemmed in by fences, cut off by private ownership of forests and riverine areas, Indians now found themselves no longer able to subsist on hunting and fishing.
Meanwhile, funds from the sale of reservation land, which were supposed to benefit the tribes, were mismanaged, often not paid for decades, sometimes outright embezzled. Much of it simply "went missing." Money that did make it to the proper federal accounts was often used for things Indians did not find worthwhile. The late historian Melissa L. Meyer wrote, “Facile generalizations about Anishinaabe dependence on welfare gratuities mask the fact that they essentially financed their own ‘assimilation.'”
Thanks to the lobbying of those for whom no amount of freed-up Indian land was enough, new federal legislation was passed in 1906 to allow Indians to sell their allotments well before the end of the trust period. Many, hating farming or broke from trying, sold at rock-bottom prices. Those who had actually received land suitable for farming, and much of it was not, couldn't afford the tools, seed, animals and other supplies required. Small government grants were insufficient and most could obtain no credit. They had received no training. Even if parents knew how to farm, children coerced into boarding schools came home years later without the necessary skills. Inherited land was often divided among too many heirs to be large enough to farm.
The dispossession was wildly successful. Partly as a consequence of the act, by 1900 the American Indian population had fallen to its lowest point in U.S. history, about 237,000.
The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 stopped the allotment process. Once again tribes were able to own land communally. New governance structures were established. These presented some problems for traditional leadership but they at least allowed Indians to choose their own leaders who could then engage in government-to-government relationships with Washington, D.C. In the 1950s and '60s, the termination acts sought to overturn the effects of Indian reorganization, obliterating the legal status of 109 tribes and taking another 2.5 million acres out of trust status. A few tribes regained their tribal status, but most smaller bands did not.
Fast forward to the beginning of February.
The proposal is open for public comment until March 15. Nothing will move forward on it until four appeals of the Cobell settlement are dealt with. A key issue in those suits is that the settlement failed to uncover even a close approximation of how much money got "lost" from the federal land trust accounts.
The fractionation emerged out the tribe-smashing Dawes Act. Over several generations, the heirs of these allotments found themselves owning smaller and smaller plots unsuitable for farming or any other commercial uses and unsalable because of the logistics of getting all owners to agree. Original allotments ranged from 80 to 320 acres, depending on the status of the individual Indian and the location of the land. Some allotments now have as many as 1000 owners, many of whom are unaware they even own their small piece. The Associated Press says the Interior Department has identified 88,638 fractionated land tracts owned by nearly 2.8 million people.
Over 10 years, the program will work first on tracts with the most owners, targeting land that will take the least preparatory effort to gain a controlling interest. No individuals will be forced to sell their allotments. Once a buy is completed, the land will be returned to communal ownership by the tribe, the very thing the Dawes Act tried to destroy.
John Dossett, the general counsel for the Native Congress of American Indians, said the draft proposal appears to address most of the tribes' major concerns. Of particular importance was that the tribes be involved in implementing and administering the land consolidation program through cooperative agreements, which are addressed in the draft plan.Cobell died in October a few months after the settlement was approved by a federal judge.
"It's a problem that has been sitting around for a hundred years or more," he said. "I think tribes are really interested in doing this right. You don't get a do-over on $1.9 billion."
As far as the other damages, to culture, to language, to kinship ties, to connections of place, no compensation can ever make up for that.