The General Allotment act of 1887 was created by the “Friends of the Indians” in an effort to assimilate the Indians into White Society. Whites believed that the Indians could be assimilated by leaving their communal living behind and assuming responsibility for land ownership and embracing Christianity.
“Federal Official regarded reservations as the halfway house to Native American assimilation, controlled environments for accomplishing the detribalization process, and thus their expected existence was to be brief. In an age of intense individualism and limited patience, there was a growing public conclusion that the federal government’s Americanization experiment had failed, that Indians were a single-mindedly committed as ever to old ways. Clearly their strategies of evasion had strengthened tribalism” (The American Indian, Gibson).
With pressure form many civic groups and from citizens like Helen Hunt Jackson, the Federal Government agreed to the Americanization process of allowing Indians to have 160 acres of land for themselves to farm. Americans hoped to detribalize the Indians and assimilate them into White society by giving them land ownership and turning them into Christians.
This was not a new concept in America. Henry Knox was an early advocate for private land ownership for American Indians. He states that the “love of exclusive property” would allow the Indians a strong foundation to build on. Thomas Jefferson also supported this belief. In 1839 a law allotted the Brotherton Indians of Wisconsin land allotment and allowed them to become citizens.
However, many Indian tribes refused the Allotment process. The Choctaw and the Creek had treaties that allowed allotment. The Native Americans soon found out that they were not protected by the Federal government and were subjected to racist state government and unfair county judges. The Creek and Choctaw soon abandoned the allotment process.
The Friends of the Indians movement which was based on the belief that American Indians could by integrated into Whites society and was based in good intentions, was actually very racist and biased against the Indians. “While these pioneer reformers were genuinely concerned about justice for Native Americans, they were still ethnocentric. To them, Indianness – tribal language, values, religion, societal models, communal ownership of land, and the aboriginal life-style – was anathema. Their goal was to lift Indians from pagan depravity and transform and assimilate them into the Anglo-American mainstream. Because in their view reservations thwarted Americanization and abetted tribalism, they should be abolished and replaced with allotment in severalty -at once” (The American Indian, Gibson).
In the 1870s, liquidating the last vestiges of tribal lands, the reservations, received increased support. After the Civil war, land hungry Whites started to settle in the West at an amazing rate. The Department of the Interior faced increasing pressure form these settlers that demanded land. Senator Coke of Texas presented the Coke bill which provided each Indian 160 acre homestead. This proposal would not go through unless two-thirds of the tribal males voted to accept it. During the 1880s Senator Dawes created the General Allotment Act.
Indians protested the Dawes bill. However, many Indians were forced into signing the bill or were tricked into signing the bill.
In the early 1900s, people started to become concerned with the vanishing American Indian culture. People started to reassess the outcome and disastrous effects of the Allotment Act. “Through Allotment in severalty the Indian as a landowner could surely accomplish that transformation process which would make him a worthy subject for full assimilation into the social mainstream. However, this hope quickly became a mocking disappointment. It failed because of the inability of many Indian intransigence; because of callousness and greed of Anglo-Americans who dispossessed over half of the allotted Indians of their land before reform program had been in effect for twenty years; and because of nonproductive public attitudes” (The American Indian, Gibson).
The American Indians were unable to give up their native lifestyles and this became evident in the early part of the century. Due to the clash with private ownership of land and their culture they were unable to assimilate in White society as the Friends of Indians had hopes. They live in extreme poverty, had high infant death rates and had a low life expectancy. Public opinion on American Indian had started to change. Jim Thorp became an American Hero in football and was idolized by many. Numerous American Indian publication started to be printed and people started to take an interest in the vanishing American Indian.
There were many people who were still against the Indian way of life. These people known as Obscurantist were particularly concerned with Indian dances which they thought showed Indian recalcitrance, defiance and ethnic corruption. They even as far as to describe the reservation lifestyle and the Indian way of life as Anti-American and Communistic.
During the New Deal proposed by FDR, The American Indians increased the income and sense of pride by getting work in the areas of reservations and future reservations. Senators Ickes and Collier passed a New Deal for Indians that provided them work and many reforms to improve Native American status. They pushed for the number of Indians employed by the BIA. They outlawed any prejudice that occurred due to Indian Religious beliefs.
“At Collier’s urging, Congress in 1934 approved the Johnson-O’Malley Act which permitted the federal government to contract with states and territories to provide educational, medical, and social welfare services for Indians” (The American Indian, Gibson).
In 1934 Congress passed the Wheeler-Howard Act also known as the Indian Reorganization Act. This proposal would promote cultural pluralism by guaranteeing to Indians rights to traditional religion and life style free of government interference. This bill paved the way for improvements in Indian education, tribal leaders, business opportunity and self government.
It is ironic that both the Indian reorganization act and the allotment Act were created by people trying to help Indians. However, only the Reorganization Act actually helped Indians and improved their society.