Native american laws

For Native Americans, the General Allotment Act of 1887 and the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 had radically different effects. The former law was an outright attack on Indian culture and society, devised to make them abandon their communal activity and ethnic identity, while the latter attempted to correct the former injustices and aimed to restore Indian cultural autonomy. Passed in 1887, during the latter stages of the Plains Indian Wars, the Indian General Allotment Act (usually called the Dawes Act) divided tribal lands among individual Indians instead of allowing tribes to hold them communally, as had been their tradition.

Each household head received an allotment of 160 acres, which the Bureau of Indian Affairs held in trust for twenty-five years. (Only the “Five Civilized Tribes,” who were displaced from their lands and forcibly resettled in what became Oklahoma, were exempt. )   The act’s aim, according to one Bureau of Indian Affairs official, was to render Native Americans more “mercenary and ambitious to obtain riches,”  but in a greater sense it aimed to “Americanize” them by turning them into yeoman farmers, much like the white settlers then arriving in great numbers on the central plains.

It was part of a larger campaign to take away their culture; other laws outlawed tribal religious practices and used Indian schools to teach Native children to behave more like whites by teaching them trades, forcing them to follow military-style regimens, and forbidding them from speaking their native languages. The Dawes Act, like related legislation, was deeply damaging to Native American society. Instead of assimilating them, it allowed large amounts of Indian land not allocated to individuals or families to be sold to whites.

The Indian Reorganization Act (also called the Wheeler-Howard Act), enacted by Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, took a much more tolerant view of Native Americans and seemed designed to undo some of the Dawes Act’s damage. The act promised not only to stop the sale of tribal lands, but also “to extend to Indians the right to form business and other organizations; to establish a credit system for Indians; to grant certain rights of home rule to Indians; [and] to provide for vocational education for Indians.

”   This “Indian New Deal” restored tribal self-government and religious freedom, granted citizenship and voting rights, and treating Indians like wards of the federal government and more like sovereign peoples. The Bureau of Indians Affairs’ reform-minded commissioner, John Collier, respected and aimed to restore traditional Indian culture by introducing this bill to Congress. Though criticized by some as “a plan to transform the reservations into living museums and treat Native Americans as an exotic minority,”  Collier’s genuine goal was restoring Indian autonomy and treating them as sovereign peoples, not as wards of the government.

The differences between these two laws are almost total. The Dawes Act was part of a greater context of intolerance and warfare against Native Americans and their culture, and was tailored to render Indians more vulnerable. On the other hand, the Indian Reorganization Act aimed to restore a degree of Indian autonomy and sovereignty over their lands and, more importantly, over themselves. While the former aimed to extinguish Indians’ ways of life, the latter made an earnest effort to restore at least some key aspects of it.


Boyer, Paul et al. The Enduring Vision. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998. Goldfield, David et al. The American Journey. Upper Saddle River NJ: Prentice Hall, 2005. Native American Documents Project. An Act to Provide for the Allotment of Lands in Severalty to Indians on the Various Reservations (General Allotment Act or Dawes Act). Available from, http://www. csusm. edu/nadp/a1887. htm. Internet; accessed 2 May 2006. Indigenous Nations Federal Charter Association. The Indian Reorganization Act, June 18, 1934 (Wheeler-Howard Act). Available from http://www. infca. org/tribes/IRA. htm. Internet; accessed 2 May 2006.