THE DISINTEGRATION OF THE INDIAN ESTATE: INDIAN LAND POLICY, 1913-1929
Between the passage of the Dawes Act in 1887 and the Indian Reorganization Act in 1934, Indian landholdings shrunk from 137 to 48 million acres. Much of this land loss was due to the unsuccessful policies of Commissioner of Indian Affairs Cato Sells (1913-1920) and his successor Charles Burke (1921-1929). Sells and Burke implemented honest, well-intentioned policies to promote Indian self-support and the productive use of Indian land, but ultimately their policies benefited whites more than Indians. Every action they took to make the Indians self-sufficient and to assimilate them into mainstream white society actually hastened the disintegration of the Indian estate. Both Sells and Burke believed assimilation was the result of a gradual and orderly process with three basic stages, and they shaped their policies accordingly. In the first stage, the government allotted tribal land to individual Indians according to the provisions of the Dawes Act, but it held title to the allotments in trust until the Indians were capable of managing their own affairs. The government purchased the surplus tribal land and usually opened it to white settlement and development. As good land in the West became scarce, the Indian Office came under increasing pressure to allot not only farming and grazing land on the reservations, but also valuable timber and mineral land there. The Indian Office was not as careful in implementing the allotment policy as it should have been. Its agents sometimes made allotments in a sloppy, negligent, or unfair manner. Although Sells and Burke tried to protect Indian interests when possible, they were more concerned that allotment work continue smoothly and quickly. After the Indians received allotments, they had to learn to support themselves on the land. Thus, Sells and Burke initiated vigorous farming and stockraising programs and constructed irrigation projects to promote the productive use of Indian land. The Indian Office, however, failed to provide the allottees with enough training and financial assistance for them to use their land beneficially, so they jumped at the chance to secure a quick, easy income by selling or leasing it. Although leasing and selling subverted the goals of independence and self-support, Sells and Burke actually encouraged these practices. Putting the land in use was apparently more important than Indian advancement. In the last stage, when the allottees were self-sufficient and capable of managing their own affairs, the government issued them fee patents, giving them full title to their allotments, and released them from guardianship. During Sells's term, the Indian Office accelerated the process of issuing fee patents by sending out special competency commissions, and it began forcing fee patents on all allottees with one-half or less Indian blood. The patentees, who were ill-prepared to meet the sudden responsibility of private land ownership, quickly sold their land, squandered the proceeds, and became destitute. Although the field reports clearly indicated that fee patenting had tragic effects, Sells and Burke were convinced that the policy would eventually benefit the Indians because after they became homeless and impoverished, they would be forced to work for a living. In 1921 Burke ended Sells's practice of issuing blanket fee patents to all Indians with a certain blood quantum, but he continued to issue them to Indians who were considered competent. The Indians continued to lose their land--and at a rapid pace. By the late 1920's concerned individuals realized that the government had failed to transform the Indians into independent, productive citizens. They no longer believed assimilation was the solution to the Indian problem but emphasized instead cultural pluralism and Indian self-determination, thus paving the way for the Indian New Deal.
JANET ANN MCDONNELL,
"THE DISINTEGRATION OF THE INDIAN ESTATE: INDIAN LAND POLICY, 1913-1929"
(January 1, 1980).
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