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From the 1500s onward, Britain and then the United States treated First Peoples as sovereign nations. Under the 3,500-year-old tradition common in Europe, Asia, and North Africa, Britain and the U.S. would wage war against the Native nations, defeat them, and then sign a treaty with them which redefined their borders. Westward expansion led to entire tribes being absorbed into the United States. The U.S. government began signing new treaties, establishing "nations within a nation" (reservations) on which First Peoples could live. This was highly unusual, because under the Eurasian tradition, conquered peoples were assimilated into the victorious nation. But in North America, racist attitudes led to the belief that Native Americans could never, ever work alongside whites. Thus, they had to be ghettoized into reservations.
Recognizing that these reservations were too small to be self-sufficient and that most tribes lacked cultural concepts (like the idea of private property) that allowed them to interact "fairly" with whites, the U.S. government established the "Indian agent" system. Relations with tribes were a U.S. Army affair (these were conquered peoples, after all), and the Army was required to appoint an agent to act as the point-person for each tribe. Agents were supposed to protect tribal interests, establish trading posts, ensure that Indians were not taken advantage of by traders, enforce prohibitions on the sale of alcohol and firearms to tribal members, and distribute food, clothing, housing, and consumer items to the tribes to enable them to live.
The military almost immediately hired civilian contractors to take over the duties of the Indian agent. These contractors engaged in widespread fraud and the black market sale of items intended to be donated for free to tribes. Contractors regularly accepted large bribes, declined to enforce the laws, and usually treated tribal members with contempt. Tens of thousands of Native Americans died from starvation and exposure, as they failed to received the food, clothing, and housing due them (or received such rotten food and shoddy goods as to be useless).
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In 1849, the Bureau of Indian Affairs was created to take over the Indian agent system from the military. It did little to stop fraud.
In 1871, President Ulysses S. Grant radically reformed the Indian agent system. There were more than 370 treaties governing the 250,000 First People living within the borders of the United States. Grant abolished all these treaties. His argument was that the U.S. was treating Indians like wards of the state; it would be better to admit that fact and reform the system than to allow a mish-mash of laws to create opportunities for graft and abuse. Furthermore, Grant won passage of new laws which allowed only churches to appoint Indian agents. The theory was that pious religious people would treat Natives better.
Fraud was, indeed, reduced, and treatment of Native Americans improved. But racist attitudes toward First People persisted, and the churches quite naturally felt their mission was Christianization rather than protection.
Part of Grant's "peace policy" toward First Peoples required that all Native Americans move onto reservations. These were fairly vast in the unsettled West, although over time the U.S. government shrank them again and again. Any tribe which did not accept a reservation was excluded from federal protection and aid. Hundreds of tribes refused; after the 1950s, many sought federal recognition and discovered they were now barred from obtaining land or aid.
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In 1877, Congress enacted the Dawes act -- which completely up-ended U.S. Indian policy.
Senator Henry Laurens Dawes of Massachusetts believed First People could, in fact, be assimilated into white culture. Assimilation, not segregation, now became the chief policy aim of the United States. Furthermore, Dawes believed that assimilation could occur over just a generation. But, he felt, it could only proceed if Indians were freed from dependence on Indian agents.
The Dawes Act:
(1) Abolished tribal government and courts. All First People now lived under the laws of the state or territory in which they resided.
(2) Surveyed all tribal lands, and allotted 160 acres of land to each head of household, 80 acres to each single adult without a household, and 40 acres to each orphan under the age of 18.
(3) Although legal title to each allotment was held by a Native American, the U.S. government held these titles in trust for 25 years while Native Americans were taught about farming, mining, law, and the concept of private property.
(4) Any Native American who refused to participate in the allotment system would have their land chosen for them.
(5) For the first time, First People could become citizens of the United States. But this was contingent upon settling on the land and beginning to improve it within four years.
(6) Any leftover land was to be sold to any willing buyer at market prices.
(7) A trust fund was established to collect mineral rights, grazing fees, and timber sales on Native American lands. Proceeds from the trust were to aid Native Americans.
The Dawes Act was amended in 1891 to provide for pro-rata allotments in cases where tribes did not own enough land to allow for the 160/80/40 rules. This amendment also extended the act to all tribes except for the "Five Civilized Tribes" (those living in the Oklahoma Territory). An 1898 amendment included the Five Civilized Tribes, and furthermore allowed the U.S. to determine who was and who was not a tribal member. (This provision emerged because unscrupulous whites were claiming "my great-grandmother was an Indian" and trying to obtain free land.) The Dawes Act was amended again in 1906 to remove the requirement for "improving the land", automatically making all First People citizens.
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The Dawes Act proved to be a horrific disaster.
Native Americans, who still lived a largely communal life in the 1870s, found their tribes torn apart. Community ties dissolved, placing incredible strains on families. First People lacked the self-sufficiency social norms of the "nuclear family" which whites had long adopted; Native families relied much more heavily on the community for food, shelter, clothing, child care, medical treatment, and soon. Native families fell apart under the strain. Domestic violence, alcholism, rape, child abuse, and a host of other social ills rose rapidly First People.
Native Americans held more than 138 million acres of land in 1876. Most tribes used this land for hunting. To be self-sufficient in hunting required vast tracts of land to sustain deer, pronghorn, elk, and the tiny buffalo herds that still remained. However, more than 90 million acres (65 percent of Native-held land) remained unallotted after 1881. This land was sold at auction to any willing buyer (almost always whites), often at rock-bottom prices. The income did not go to tribes (which technically no longer existed under the law) but to the U.S. Treasury. As Native American populations recovered in the early part of the 20th century, First Peoples found themselves with too little land. A huge exodus of people began as children left for the cities, causing further disruption to tribal and family life and the worsening of social ills for Native Americans (both those on reservations and those living in cities).
Many tribal members found themselves allotted land unsuited to farming. Federal allotment officials didn't care, as most of them felt their duty was to satisfy white demand for land. Thus, much of the worst land was distributed first, leaving the best farmland as "excess" to be sold to whites.
Allotments also proved far too small. Even if the land was arable, 160 acres on the dry Great Plains was just not enough to feed a family. First People needed at least double the acreage to provide for both grain (for human consumption) and hay (for animal feed). Dryland farming and the use of winter wheat were not known in the United States until about 1890; this meant Native Americans had to have access to water for irrigation, which nearly all Native land lacked.
State and territorial inheritance rules also worsened the situation. If an adult died intestate (without a will), the male children in the family would inherit the land in equal portions. Few Native Americans understood what wills were; wills were also culturally abnormal in nearly all tribal cultures. Thus, most Native American men died intestate. This led to quick fragmentation of Indian land holdings. Within just 40 years, most Native Americans owned less than a few acres of land.
Moreover, once taxation of the land began, Native Americans found themselves unable to pay. Many sold their land to whites at fire-sale prices to pay taxes. In other cases, the state or territorial government seized the land for nonpayment of taxes and sold it to whites at rock-bottom prices.
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President Franklin D. Roosevelt was appalled by the side-effects of the Dawes Act. In 1934, he successfully pushed Congress to enact Indian Reorganization Act (IRA), which essentially repealed the Dawes Act. The IRA continues to dominate federal Indian policy to this day.
But the damage was done. Today, most Native Americans own less than a foot of land. That's a 1/9 millionth interest in the original allotment, valued at 0.004 cents. Highly fractionated land is for all practical purposes worthless.
The Native American trust fund originally generated little income. That changed over time, and today -- with coal, oil, gas, and mining development -- the trust generates from $350 to $400 million a year. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) began to lose control of the trust in the 1940s, as fragmentation of land made it next-to-impossible to keep track of what land was generating income and who it was supposed to go to. In 1996, Eloise Cobell of the Blackfeet Tribe in Montana sued the BIA for trust fund income due to her, her ancestors, and her tribe. This case, "Cobell v. Kempthorne" was finally settled in 2009 for $3.4 billion. (That's about half the money actually due.) Since then, the U.S. Department of the Interior has been sued time and time again because it cannot account for the $3.4 billion it is supposed to disburse.
The Indian Reorganization Act restored tribal government, and once more treated tribes at sovereign nations. The act returned all unsold Native American land to the tribes, and provided for the federal government to purchase land from private owners to consolidate with tribal land. More than 2 million acres were purchased and returned to tribes.
All tribes were required to vote on whether to accept the Indian Reorganization Act. More than 170 approved it, while 73 (including some of the largest) rejected it because they felt there was no way in hell that white-run government would treat them fairly. The tribes which rejected the IRA found themselves without the aid and support it provided.
The Indian Reorganization Act also contained provisions for the federal government to terminate recognition of particularly small tribes. More than 100 tribes and bands, representing about 12,000 people and 2.5 million acres of land, were dissolved. Some have successfully sued to regain their recognition.