What was the significance of the Dawes Severalty Act for tribal life?
The Dawes Severalty Act was important for tribal life because it helped to reduce the tribes’ ability to live in their traditional ways.
The Dawes Act ended communal ownership of the land and parceled it up into pieces to be owned by individual Native Americans. The major effect of this was to (eventually) drastically reduce the amount of land available to the tribes. The government sold a great deal of the land that it deemed “surplus.” In addition, many Native Americans sold their allotments to non-Indians. This drastically reduced the size of reservations and made it much harder for the Native Americans to live in traditional ways.
The Dawes Severalty Act was signed by Grover Cleveland in 1887 with the intention of assimilating Native Americans into the United States. To do this, tribal control of reservations was taken away and land was granted to individuals holdings.
Prior to this act, the tradition was for Indian tribes to maintain and manage their land for communal use. The Dawes act changed this; instead, reservations were divided. Men with families were given 160 acres, single men were given 80 acres, and boys received 40 acres. Women were not given land. While this certainly would diminish power of Native American tribes, it also had the added effect of removing "excess" reservation properties not given to individuals from the tribe, which the government sold. As a consequence, 86 million acres of land were sold to Americans.
Ultimately, this further severed relationships between the US government and tribal councils across the Unites States. The act remained in place until 1934's Wheeler-Howard Act, which overturned the policy and attempted to return autonomy and control to the tribal councils. The Wheeler-Howard Act also ended the sale of "excess" land to US buyers.
The Dawes Severalty act, in principal, seemed like a law that would benefit the American Indians. It was a stark departure in American policy from the past when lands were forcefully removed or taken through unfair treaties. The law was an attempt to have the Indians assimilate to the American principle of private enterprise and ownership. To further this effort, the government partitioned the communal lands of the Native Americans into privately owned parcels. All of the Indians that registered would be granted significant parcels of land to develop for farming.
The problem with the law was that Indians were not versed in the development of commercial agriculture and really were not interested in private ownership of land and resources. For centuries, Indians existed by sharing and working their lands together. For this reason, the introduction of private ownership was not a success for Indians. Native tribes also lost hundreds of thousands of acres of land as the law called for surplus lands to be sold to private individuals outside of the tribes.
The Dawes Act of 1887 was a misguided attempt to reform the government's Native American policy. It's goal was to assimilate Native Americans into the mainstream of American life and eliminate tribal ownership. The significance of this would be the fact that By 1900, Indians had lost 50 percent of the 156 million acres they had held just two decades earlier.