In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Dawes Severalty Act

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Progressive Era Reform Movements
  • Gender, Sexuality, and Allotment Policy
  • Global Indigenous Contexts
  • Allotment Policy and Political Theory
  • Indian Country, the Dawes Act, and Popular Culture

American Literature Dawes Severalty Act
Kathleen Washburn
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0149


The General Allotment Act or Dawes Severalty Act of 1887 had a dramatic impact on Indian Country in the context of US settler colonialism. Named for Senator Henry Dawes of Massachusetts, the statute authorized the survey of American Indian reservations and the allotment of such lands to recognized tribal members for individual ownership. As part of broader federal and social movements to assimilate native people to a national domestic order and to break up tribal lands and cultural traditions, the Dawes Act was designed to convert reservation lands into a system of private property and to release so-called “surplus” lands for settlement by non-Indians. The statute allowed for allocations of up to 160 acres for the head of a household, 80 acres to a single person or orphan under the age of 18, and 40 acres for each legal minor. In addition, the Dawes Act stipulated that such allotments would be held in trust by the federal government for twenty-five years; at that point, each Indian recipient of allotted land who had “adopted the habits of civilized life” would be granted land title (fee patent) and become a US citizen. Amended in 1891 to allow the leasing of Indian lands in certain circumstances and reinforced by the Curtis Act of 1898, which extended allotment policy to Indian Territory, the Dawes Act undermined indigenous forms of community and cultural practices and ultimately led to tribal land losses of 90 million acres. From Gender, Sexuality, and Allotment Policy and the Management of Natural Resources to key shifts in the relationship between Native American Sovereignty and Federal Indian Law, the Dawes Act had profound effects on diverse native communities, even as allotment marked a continuation of earlier forms of US expansion through the politics of dispossession. In turn, although the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act halted the allotment of Indian lands and called for increased forms of tribal self-determination, the Legacies of the Dawes Act for Modern Native Communities continue to resonate for criminal and civil jurisdiction, debates about Blood Quantum and Tribal Citizenship, often linked to racialized designations of Indian identity from tribal allotment rolls, and issues of inheritance such as Fractionated Allotments and the Cobell Settlement. From studies of Progressive Era Reform Movements and Literary Criticism to Allotment Policy and Political Theory, scholars across disciplines continue to investigate the history, administration, and complex consequences of allotment policy for indigenous communities in the United States and in relation to Global Indigenous Contexts.

General Overviews

Prucha 1984 is a broad overview of federal Indian policy over two centuries, one that situates allotment relative to treaty relationships between the United States and native nations, the federal trust relationship for Indians as wards of the state, and tribal self-determination with the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act. Hoxie 1984 focuses more narrowly on the Dawes Act and related assimilation policies, such as the Indian boarding-school movement, and also addresses white “Friend of the Indian” groups as part of Progressive Era Reform Movements. Cahill 2011 broadens such policy and legal studies through a social history of the US Indian Service that accounts for the local administration and lived experiences of the Dawes Act and assimilation programs; this important study also addresses American Indian employees of the Office of Indian Affairs and the intricate links among Gender, Sexuality, and Allotment Policy. Barker 2011 analyzes competing legal and cultural definitions of native identity, with particular attention to the conflicts between Native American Sovereignty and Federal Indian Law, including the Legacies of the Dawes Act for Modern Native Communities. McDonnell 1991 focuses on the complex operations of land loss for tribes as a result of the Dawes Act, and Meyer 1994 balances federal legislative history with a comprehensive study of dispossession for Anishinaabe and the White Earth Nation as a result of state power, timber interests, and the complexities of land tenure policies linked to Blood Quantum and Tribal Citizenship. Importantly, Meyer’s study is grounded in native voices and experiences, including the internal politics of tribal factions. In a similar vein, Chang 2010 offers an alternative to national and regional histories dominated by narratives and voices of white settlers and policymakers rather than indigenous communities and people of color; the author’s history of Creek land tenure in the context of Indian Territory and Oklahoma Statehood builds on Regional Studies and Tribal Histories while also touching on the Legacies of the Dawes Act for Modern Native Communities. Genetin-Pilawa 2012 addresses the history of allotment through the relationship between localized debates and national policy. By focusing on regional conflicts, Grant’s peace policy, and vocal opponents of allotment, the author emphasizes the controversies of federal Indian law and the contingent nature of forced assimilation policies in the late 19th century.

  • Barker, Joanne. Native Acts: Law, Recognition, and Cultural Authenticity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1215/9780822393382

    Rigorous theoretical discussion of competing rights claims and models of native subjects in relation to US nationalism; calls for defining tribal membership and belonging according to the current needs for revitalizing native communities rather than notions of cultural authenticity as defined through dominant discourses of race, nation, or citizenship.

  • Cahill, Cathleen D. Federal Fathers and Mothers: A Social History of the United States Indian Service, 1869–1933. First Peoples. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011.

    Wide-ranging social history of the US Indian Service in relation to federal assimilation policies from Reconstruction through the Indian Reorganization Act. Detailed investigation of forms of intimate colonialism, with significant attention to the large numbers of Native Americans and women in civil service through the Office of Indian Affairs.

  • Chang, David A. The Color of the Land: Race, Nation, and the Politics of Landownership in Oklahoma, 1832–1929. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010.

    Focuses on competing interests in eastern Oklahoma before and after the allotment of Creek lands, in order to chart broader debates about racial identity, class opportunity, and national mythology. Illustrates how such richly layered stories revise key narratives of black, white, and indigenous pasts.

  • Genetin-Pilawa, C. Joseph. Crooked Paths to Allotment: The Fight over Federal Indian Policy after the Civil War. First Peoples. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012.

    Combines American political development and postcolonial theory for an alternate history of allotment; emphasizes conflict over federal Indian policy through figures such as Ely Parker, a Civil War general and the first Native American appointed as commissioner of Indian Affairs, and Thomas Bland of the National Indian Defense Association.

  • Hoxie, Frederick A. A Final Promise: The Campaign to Assimilate the Indians, 1880–1920. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.

    Broad history of Progressive Era politics regarding the “Indian problem,” with attention to policymakers, “Friends of the Indian,” anthropologists, and employees of the Office of Indian Affairs. Argues that the Dawes Act was a continuation of federal policy rather than a drastic change; includes a detailed bibliography of primary sources.

  • McDonnell, Janet A. The Dispossession of the American Indian, 1887–1934. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.

    Detailed history of the loss of millions of acres of indigenous lands between the Dawes Act and the Indian Reorganization Act; extends focus beyond policymakers and legislation to address problems emerging through implementation of allotment, such as farming and livestock programs, leasing, and fee patents linked to competency commissions.

  • Meyer, Melissa L. The White Earth Tragedy: Ethnicity and Dispossession at a Minnesota Anishinaabe Reservation, 1889–1920. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994.

    Important and influential study of the erosion of Anishinaabe land tenure at the White Earth Reservation; traces the effects of the 1889 Nelson Act in consolidating Ojibwa lands and subsequent capitalist interests in natural resources. Emphasizes native agency and adaptation in addition to the views of federal policymakers.

  • Prucha, Francis Paul. The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians. 2 vols. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.

    Encyclopedic two-volume study of federal Indian policy, organized chronologically from the colonial era to Indian removal, the Indian New Deal, termination, and self-determination periods. Includes a chapter on the allotment of Indian lands as “panacea for the Indian problem” (p. 659) in concert with boarding schools and the reservation system.

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