In a number of ways, this policy of removal and relocation led to the impoverishment of American Indian communities and an erosion of their social, cultural, and political systems. For instance, American Indian communities were routinely disrupted through the destruction and loss of life that resulted from the military conflicts this policy often precipitated. For tribes such as the Navaho, Cherokee, Ponca and Nez Perce, these disruptions were exacerbated by the severe loss of life (due to disease, starvation and other hardships) brought about by their forced relocations (Brown, 1970; Dale, 1969; Zinn, 1980).
In addition, the loss of traditional lands, in and of itself, had drastic cultural impacts on American Indian communities. In regard to this impact, Segal and Stineback (1977) write,
Nothing was, or is to this day, as important to Native Americans as the land itself. In a way that few colonial Europeans could understand, the land was Indian culture: it provided Native Americans with their sense of a fixed place in the order of the world, with their religious observances, and with their lasting faith in the importance of the struggling but united community as opposed to the ambitious, acquisitive individual that seemed to them to characterize Europeans in the New World [italics in original]. (p.27)
The loss of land also resulted in the destruction of many tribal communities’ traditional economies and means of subsistence. Although these traditional practices had already been partially eroded by European influences such as the fur trade and the private ownership of land (Prucha, 1985), for many tribes relocation onto reservations completed this erosion. In order to fill the vacuum left by traditional methods of subsistence, the U.S. government encouraged American Indians to become farmers, but they were usually unwilling to replace the old ways with those of European Americans (Cingolani, 1973; Deloria, 1977; Pevar, 1992; Prucha, 1985). Furthermore, reservation land was often unfit for farming, and the government failed to adequately provide the knowledge and tools necessary for this socioeconomic conversion (Cingolani, 1973; Fritz, 1963; Grossman, 1979; Porter, 1990). Although many American Indians continued to practice, as best they could, traditional methods of subsistence and many others adjusted to the demands of the new economic system, most American Indian communities became impoverished and ultimately dependent upon the government annuities that they received as payment for their land (Dale, 1969; Fritz, 1963; Prucha, 1985; White, 1991).
Assimilation and Allotment (1887–1934)
By the late 1800s, many Christians and humanitarians had become increasingly concerned with the negative impacts federal policy had had on American Indians and their communities, the continuing encroachment of European Americans on to tribal land, and the scandalously corrupt management of reservations by government officials. Although during previous decades the assimilation of American Indians into Anglo-American culture had been considered desirable by many European Americans, by the late 1800s voluntary associations such as the Women’s National Indian Association and the Indian Rights Association had concluded that assimilation was the only practical and humane answer to these problems (Cadwalader and Deloria, 1984; Dale, 1969; Grossman, 1979; Fritz, 1963; Shattuck and Norgren, 1991). Influenced by such groups, as well as by European American land speculators, gold seekers and others who were eager to acquire tribal lands, from 1887 to 1934 the federal government systematically dismantled most American Indian reservations and redistributed a significant portion of the land to European American settlers. It was expected that this would disrupt communal tribal cultures and force American Indian people to adopt the ways of the American farmer (Bordewich, 1996; Cadwalader and Deloria, 1984; Dale, 1969; Fritz, 1963; Pevar, 1992). Simultaneously, thousands of American Indian children were forcibly removed from their homes and placed in boarding schools with the overt intention of stripping them of their traditional cultures and inculcating them in the ways of European Americans (Swinomish, 1991; Utter, 1993).
The General Allotment Act
Passed in 1887, this act, also known as the Dawes Act, was the legislation that provided for the dismantling of reservations and the redistribution of reservation land to European Americans. The act initially delegated to the Bureau of Indian Affairs the authority to allot 160 acres of tribal land to each head of household and 40 acres to each minor, but it was soon amended to provide an allotment to each tribal member of either 80 acres of agricultural land or 160 acres of grazing land. After all eligible American Indians had received their share, the surplus was purchased by the U.S. government at a nominal sum and then resold to European American settlers.
As was suggested above, Senator Henry L. Dawes, the architect of the Allotment Act, together with the Christians and humanitarians who supported the act, hoped that it would lead to the breakdown of tribal relationships and the communal nature of American Indian societies as well as force tribal members to adopt the individualistic ways of the American farmer (Bordewich, 1996; Cadwalader and Deloria, 1984; Dale, 1969; Fritz, 1963; Pevar, 1992). It was believed that contact with European Americans and the private ownership of land “... would make farmers out of ‘savages,’” as well as hasten the economic self-sufficiency of a people whose former livelihoods had disappeared (Cadwalader and Deloria, 1984; Cingolani, 1973; Utter, 1993, p.252).
However, far from helping American Indians,
the effect of the General Allotment Act on Indians was catastrophic. Most Indians did not want to abandon their communal society and adopt the way of life of a farmer. Further, much of the tribal land was unsuitable for small scale agriculture. Thousands of impoverished Indians sold their parcels of land to white settlers or lost their land in foreclosures when they were unable to pay state real estate taxes. Moreover, tribal government was seriously disrupted by the sudden presence of so many non-Indians on the reservation and by the huge decrease in the tribe’s land base. (Pevar, 1992, p.5)
By the time the allotment policies were reversed in 1934 by the Indian Reorganization Act, American Indian land holdings had been reduced by two thirds: from 138 million acres to about 48 million acres (Cingolani, 1973). “At least 200,000 tribesmen either had no land at all or too little for subsistence” (Cingolani, 1973, p.26).
Despite these facts however, Washburn (1971) argues that the impact of the allotment policies was less an economic blow to American Indians than a psychological and even spiritual one. Washburn states,
No longer did many tribal Indians feel pride in the tribal possession of hundreds of square miles of territory which they could use as a member of the tribe. Now they were forced to limit their life and their vision to an incomprehensible individual plot of 160 or so acres in a checkerboard of neighbors, hostile and friendly, rich and poor, white and red ...
A way of life had been smashed; a value system destroyed. Indian poverty, ignorance, and ill health were the results. The admired order and the sense of community often observed in early Indian communities were replaced by the easily caricatured features of rootless, shiftless, drunken outcasts, so familiar to the reader of early twentieth century newspapers. (p.75)