Bachelor of Arts
Dawes Act, Northwest Ordinance, Plains, Indians
In the centennial of the passage of the Northwest ordinance, 1887, the U.S. Congress passed the Dawes Act, continuing the program set up by the earlier document. The Northwest Ordinance had sought to incorporate lands previously uninhabited by whites into the American realm by imposing a Euro-American sense of order onto areas viewed as "wild" and "savage" The document created a program by which the western development of the continent would proceed in a rational manner, and by which lands would be attributed worth and meaning in relation to the developed areas to the east. The Dawes Act proceeded in the tradition of the Northwest Ordinance by incorporating Indian reservations of the West into the economic and political sphere of late nineteenth century America. It proposed to break up the communal lands of Indian tribes and nations into quarter sections for individual farmers. In the process, Indian tribes were dispossessed, and white settlers and corporations were granted the lands that had been guaranteed to the tribes forever. The Dawes Act was one of the last measures in the expansionist heritage of the United states by which the remaining enclaves of Indian lands were subjected to the enveloping grid.
During the 1880s, the Indian Question became more ominous and more urgent in the eyes of concerned Easterners who called themselves the Friends of the Indians. These reformers created the Dawes Act and encouraged its passage. They were supported by mainstream society in an endeavor to incorporate desired tribal lands into the American realm. It was easy for earlier generations to relegate Indian groups to peripheral and undesirable lands in the infinity of the American West, but by the 1880s, land was becoming scarce and those distant lands once known as the "Great American Desert" were desired by an ever-expanding nation. The Plains had become an integral part of the American landscape and economy, and its Indian reservations were frustrating the drive to link the continent, from East to West, with white American culture. The boundless continent had become finite. No longer could white America soothe its sense of guilt by compensating Indians with lands in the distant West. With the absence of alternative lands, white guilt was replaced with new and broader justifications for the dispossession of the Indians- justifications that could support the possibility of Indian cultural extinction.
Love, Christopher J., "The Friends of the Indians and Their Foes: A Reassessment of the Dawes Act Debate" (1991). Honors Papers. 571.