Tragedy of the Plains Indians
|Native Americans at the Turn of the Century||Previous|
|Digital History ID 3506|
As the 19th century ended, Native Americans seemed to be a disappearing
people. The 1890 census recorded an Indian population of less than 225,000,
and falling. The prevailing view among whites was that Indians should be absorbed
as rapidly as possible into the dominant society: their reservations broken
up, tribal authority abolished, traditional religions and languages eradicated.
Late 19th century federal policy embodied this attitude. In 1871 Congress
declared that tribes were no longer separate, independent governments. It placed
tribes under the guardianship of the federal government. The 1887 Dawes Act
allotted reservation lands to individual Indians in units of 40 to 160 acres.
Land that remained after allotment was to be sold to whites to pay for Indian
The Dawes Act was supposed to encourage Indians to become farmers. But most
of the allotted lands proved unsuitable for farming, owing to a lack of sufficient
rainfall. The plots were also too small to support livestock.
Much Indian land quickly fell into the hands of whites. There was to be a 25 year
trust period to keep Indians from selling their land allotments, but an 1891
amendment did allow Indians to lease them, and a 1907 law let them sell portions
of their property. A policy of "forced patents" took additional lands
out of Indian hands. Under this policy, begun in 1909, government agents determined
which Indians were "competent" to assume full responsibility for their
allotments. Many of these Indians quickly sold their lands to white purchasers.
Altogether, the severalty policy reduced Indian-owned lands from 155 million
acres in 1881 to 77 million in 1900 and just 48 million acres in 1934. The most
dramatic loss of Indian land and natural resources took place in Oklahoma. At
the end of the 19th century, the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Creek
nations held half the territory's land. But by 1907, when Oklahoma became a
state, much of this land, as well as its valuable asphalt, coal, natural gas,
and oil resources, had passed into the possession of whites.