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How Did the Dawes Act Affect Native Americans?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Dawes Act was a piece of legislation passed in the United States in 1887, remaining in effect until 1934. The Act had far-reaching effects on Native American society and culture, and some people suggest that it contributed directly to the fragmentation and gradual dissolution of many Native American communities. The reasoning behind the Dawes Act was allegedly the protection of Native American people, but many people believe that the Act was actually deliberately designed to fracture the Indian community in the United States, while also opening up Indian lands to settlement.

Under the Dawes Act, any Native American who applied would be given an allotment of private land, which would be held in trust for 25 years before the deed would be turned over to the owner. Depending on how the land would be used, the allotment might be 160, 80, or 40 acres, and people were allowed to choose their own allotments. Upon taking ownership of the land, the owner would also be entitled to full United States citizenship.

However, the Dawes Act came with some strings attached. First of all, the land to be broken into allotments was chosen by the United States government, and it was often of inferior quality. Often, Indian landowners were unable to live or farm on the land, and they were therefore forced to sell it, typically causing ownership to pass from the Native American community to white settlers. They were also required to Anglicize their names, ostensibly to make the paperwork easier to handle, but more probably due to a concerted effort to suppress Native American culture.

Land ownership itself was a difficult concept for Native Americans to grasp, as they historically lived collectively, and did not believe that people could “own” land. Under the Dawes Act, tribes often found themselves fragmented, losing their core identity, language, and culture. In addition, the allotments were broken up by the descendants of land owners, causing even further fragmentation. Many frustrated children ended up selling their portions, often at a steep discount.

While the Dawes Act was supposed to promote land ownership among Native Americans, the net result was a huge jump in the number of landless Native Americans. Because their tribes had been heavily fragmented, descendants of many of these individuals have trouble establishing their eligibility for classification as “Native Americans,” along with all of the benefits that entails. The breaking up of native lands under the Dawes Act also contributed to the loss of Native American culture, traditions, and languages.

America Explained is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a America Explained researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon978457 — On Nov 18, 2014

The Indian General Allotment Act is has not been amended. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has application for members of any federally recognized tribe to apply for up to 160 acres of public lands. However, the lands are identified in BLM District Office Resource Management Plan in the land disposal section.

By anon157233 — On Mar 02, 2011

well said anon59503. White people don't know how to take care of the land properly anyway!

By lightning88 — On Oct 09, 2010

Apparently homestead acts have never been good news for Native Americans. For instance, even with the American Homestead Act, which basically gave pioneers the right to claim a piece of land so long as they improved it (i.e., farmed it, etc), ended up leaving a lot of Native Americans dispossessed as well.

Interesting fact -- homesteading continued to be legal in 49 states until 1976, and continued in Alaska until 1986. Not such a thing of the past, is it?

By CopperPipe — On Oct 09, 2010

I know that there's a big modern homesteading movement going on in some parts of the country, but for some reason I feel like it's not exactly following in the traditions of the Indian Homestead Act...

By TunaLine — On Oct 09, 2010

Were there any available exemptions with Indian Homestead Act?

For example, if you wanted to farm your land, could you get an exemption to do that? Or if you wanted to trade out for another piece, was that a possibility?

By anon59503 — On Jan 08, 2010

seems to me as with every other, by law land is passed down generation to generation through inheritance, so anyone with american indigenous blood has tag and title to this north american continent. all others are illegal in their entitlements of said land. all said contracts are null and void because of theft of said property and should be returned to rightful owner as stated in any other theft of property lawsuit.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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