The Allotment Act

From “The Land is Not Empty: Following Jesus in Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery” by Sarah Augustine

From invasion to occupation

The final chapter in the repossession of Yakama lands occurred in 1887, when the Allotment Act was established as federal law. Popularly known as the Dawes Act, this federal policy remanded ownership of tribal land from collective to individual allotments, which were then “granted” to individual tribal members.

Under this policy, the tribe lost great swaths of land, as individuals were pushed from under the canopy of collective ownership into the free market economy. Upon the deaths of original allottees, the federal government claimed possession of all lands where there were no proven heirs. Descendents were required to prove their relationship to their parents, and since the law recognized only family relationships determined by official record, often church record, Native Americans who were not Christianized were often dispossessed of their homes. Many others lost allotments by way of trickery. Since many tribal members could not read or write, they signed documents signing ownership of their lands over to swindlers. My friend Herman recounted that his grandmother lost her allotment when she signed an X on an agreement with the grocer, an agreement she believed was an IOU for twenty dollars. 

The primary purpose of the Allotment Act was to remove Indigenous Peoples from their lands. But it was presented by decision-makers as a kindness, a remedy for People too “backward” to choose to assimilate into the dominant culture. Decision-makers argued that it was in the best interest of Indigenous Peoples to be separated from each other, to learn conventional agriculture, to compete with each other.

D.S. Otis, a historian commissioned by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to write a history of allotment under the Dawes Act, notes in his seminal work The Dawes Act and the Allotment of Indian Lands, 

“That the White Man’s way was good and the Indian’s way was bad, all agreed. So, on the one hand, allotment was counted on to break up tribal life. This blessing was dwelt upon at length. The agent for the Yankton Sioux wrote in 1877; “As long as Indians live in villages, they will retain many of their old and injurious habits. Frequent feasts, community in food, heathen ceremonies and dances, constant visiting – these will continue as long as the people live together in close neighborhoods and villages …I trust that before another year is ended, they will generally be located upon individual lands of farms. From that date will begin their real and permanent progress.” 

As the agent implies, placing Indigenous Peoples on reservations was not enough to break them. As long as they were together, they persisted in practicing their cultures, their traditional lifeways, and their spiritualities. The Allotment Act was overtly construed as a means of dividing sovereign peoples for their own good. In actuality, it stole 90 million acres guaranteed to Indigenous Peoples by treaty.