B. Indian Citizenship and the Allotment Era
By the mid-nineteenth century, social reformers, led by missionaries from both Protestant and Catholic denominations, began to agitate for a more humane approach toward Indian relations. The Removal and Reservation Policies had virtually destroyed the way of life of many Indian nations. Disease, dependence, and death were common and the cause of considerable alarm on the part of fair-minded Americans. While the Indian War was still on-going, considerable pressure was put on federal officials to ensure a better quality of life for those Indigenous people who had been neutralized as a military threat to the United States.
President Ulysses S. Grant responded with the adoption of his so-called Peace Policy. This policy focused on assimilating the Indians and otherwise transforming them from “savages” into “civilized” men. This process took the form of converting Indians to Christianity and providing Western education to Indian children, with the federal government expending considerable sums on building boarding schools and hiring teachers. To accomplish this objective, the federal government gave money directly to Catholic and Protestant churches, in clear violation of the Constitution's prohibition against the establishment of religion. Because missionaries had always been at the forefront of Indian assimilation efforts, federal policymakers eventually concluded that they could be enlisted to effectively take over the administration of Indian affairs. Government support for religious activities in Indian country continued into the early twentieth century and was an instrumental part of the Indian citizenship campaign that was to follow.
By 1880, Congress came to the conclusion that Grant's Peace Policy had failed. Two primary flaws were identified. First, the Policy failed to clearly delineate the status of the Indian nations under American law and policy. While Congress had ended treaty making with the Indian nations in 1871, bilateral agreements continued to be relied upon, complicating the Indian nations' understanding of their legal status. Second, the Peace Policy had failed to bring about Indian assimilation and civilization as quickly as had been hoped. In significant part, this was because “jurisdictional squabbles between Catholics and Protestants had undermined its success.” But there were also concerns about whether the policy would even work at all.
Against the backdrop of increasingly violent conflicts between settlers, the Indians and the military, federal policymakers were forced to consider a different policy approach. Two important questions remained. First, would separate Indian enclaves--the reservations--be continued? Second, would the “civilization” program be continued? The answers to both questions turned on the broader question of whether the United States would continue to deal with the Indians as a people separate and apart from the United States. Hoxie explains the foundation for this policy dilemma:
Unlike other minorities, American natives had had a territorial base for their culture within the boundaries of the United States. Prior to 1865 this unique position necessitated a policy of exceptionalism toward Indians. After the Civil War, many native controlled areas disappeared. Nevertheless, the Peace Policy, with its promise of secure reservations and helpful agents, had encouraged the retention of an exceptionalist perspective. By 1880, however, settlers had completely undermined the native land base, and the idealism of the Civil War era had disappeared. Only then did Congress face the issue of exceptionalism as an open question.
Congress was under considerable pressure from two competing interests to resolve this question in favor of ending a separatist approach. The railroads and other business interests were eager to appropriate the remaining Indian lands to promote further Westward expansion. These were extremely powerful forces that were offset and tempered only by the intensity and commitment of the social reformers bent on “helping” the Indians through the perpetuation of their Indian civilization efforts.
One of the most significant players in the campaign to civilize the Indians was the Indian Rights Association. Formed in Philadelphia in 1882, this group of philanthropic minded Americans was responsible for laying the intellectual foundation of the federal government's Indian policy for the next 50 years. The IRA's agenda was unmistakably clear:
The Association seeks to secure the civilization of the à Indians of the United States à, and to prepare the way for their absorption into the common life of our people. The Indian as a savage member of a tribal organization cannot survive, ought not to survive, the aggressions of civilization, but his individual redemption from heathenism and ignorance, his transformation from the condition of a savage nomad to that of an industrious American citizen, is abundantly possible.
To implement this agenda, the IRA focused on the enactment of federal legislation to give Indian people Western notions of law, education, and land title.
The members of the IRA were not extremists or religious fanatics, but highly respected members of the intelligentsia with firm convictions about how best to deal with an Indian population that had been so cruelly treated by the American military. One of the leading IRA members was Merrill E. Gates, a former president of Rutgers and Amherst Colleges, who was appointed by President Arthur in 1884 to serve as a member of the Board of Indian Commissioners. He often presided over meetings of the IRA's Lake Mohonk Conference and, by virtue of his position, exercised great influence in its proceedings. His writings reveal the deep commitment that he had to “help” the Indians, but also the great contempt that he had for the traditional Indian way of life.
Because Gates was so influential, his writings read like a Congressional Committee report for the legislation that later followed and are thus worthy of closer examination. Excerpts from one of his more significant writings, “Land and Law as Agents in Educating Indians,” best reveals the mentality of those policymakers responsible for the comprehensive plan to assimilate the Indians:
What should the Indian become? To this there is one answer--and but one. He should become an intelligent citizen of the United States. There is no other æmanifest destinyÆ for any man or any body of men on our domain à. [W]e are, as a matter of course, to seek to fit the Indians among us as we do all other men the responsibilities of citizenship.
[The Indians] are the wards of the Government. Is not a guardian's first duty so as to educate and care for his wards as to make them able to care for themselves? It looks like intended fraud if a guardian persists in such management of his wards and such use of their funds entrusted to him as in the light of experience clearly unfits them and will always keep them unfit for the management of their own affairs and their own property.
Why, if a race inured to toil were cut off from all intercourse with the outside world, and left to roam at large over a vast territory, regularly fed by Government supplies, how many generations would pass before that race would revert to barbarism? We have held [the Indians] at arm's length, cut them off from the teaching power of good example, and given them rations and food to hold them in habits of abject laziness.
We have not seemed to concern ourselves with the question, How can we organize, enforce, and sustain institutions and habits among the Indians which shall civilize and Christianize them? The fine old legend, noblesse oblige, we have forgotten in our broken treaties and our shamefully deficient legislation à.
Two peculiarities which mark the Indian life, if retained, will render his progress slow, uncertain and difficult. These are: (1) The tribal organization. (2) The Indian reservation. I am satisfied that no man can carefully study the Indian question without the deepening conviction that these institutions must go if we would save the Indian from himself.
The tribal organization, with its tenure of land in common, with its constant divisions of good and rations per capita without regard to service rendered, cuts the nerve of all that manful effort which political economy teaches us proceeds from the desire for wealth. True ideas of property with all the civilizing influences that such ideas excite are formed only as the tribal relation is outgrown à.
We must as rapidly as possible break up the tribal organization and give them law, with the family and land in severalty as its central idea. We must not only give them law, we must force law upon them. We must not only offer them education, we must force education upon them. Education will come to them by complying with the forms and the requirements of the law.
Lessons in law for the Indian should begin with the developing and the preservation, by law, of those relations of property and of social intercourse which spring out of and protect the family. First of all, he must have land in severalty. Land in severalty, on which to make a home for his family. This land the Government should, where necessary, for a few years hold in trust for him or his heirs, inalienable and unchargeable. But it shall be his. It shall be patented to him as an individual.
Among the parts of the reservation to be so assigned to Indians in severalty retain alternate ranges or townships for white settlers à. Let especial advantages in price of land, and in some cases a small salary be offered, to induce worthy farmers thus to settle among the Indians as object-teachers of civilization. Let the parts of the reservations not needed by the Government for the benefit of the Indians, and the money thus realized be used to secure this wise intermingling of the right kind of civilized men with the Indians. Over all, extend the law of the States and Territories, and let Indian and white man stand alike before the law.
Christian missionaries, teachers, and farmers among the Indians, and the awakening of moral thoughtfulness among our people about Indian rights are the means to the civilization of the Indian; proper legislation devised and enforced by these must be the method; and the intelligent citizenship of the Indian will be the result.
So powerful was the influence of Gates and the IRA that within a few years Congress abandoned Grant's failed Peace Policy and adopted a new policy designed to accomplish the two-fold mission of promoting Indian assimilation while at the same time furthering westward expansion.
In 1887, in furtherance of this agenda, Congress adopted the Allotment Policy with the enactment of the General Allotment Act. Sponsored by Senator Henry Dawes, the Allotment Act mandated a process by which Indian common lands would be allocated to individual Indians with the “surplus” land sold off to White settlers. Under the Act, individual Indian allotments were to be held in protected government trust status for twenty-five years and could not be taxed, leased, or sold during that time. After that period expired, however, the trust restriction would automatically be lifted and the Indian allottee would become the owner of the land in fee.
The debate on the Allotment legislation echoed the sentiment of the social reformers. One sponsor argued that
the Indian must either perish, depend upon the Government for support, or abandon his thriftless habits, learn to eat bread in the sweat of his face, and finally rise to the level of the civilization that surrounds him and take upon himself the duties and responsibilities of American citizenship. Starvation, pauperism, or independent, self-supporting citizenship--between these the Indian must take his choice, or, rather, we as his guardians, must choose for him à.
What shall be his future status? Shall he remain a pauper savage, blocking the pathway of civilization, an increasing burden upon the people? Or shall he be converted into a civilized tax-payer, contributing toward the support of the Government and adding to the material prosperity of the country?
[T]he tribal relations must be broken up à the practice of massing large numbers of Indians on reservations must be stopped à lands must be allotted in severalty à [and] where there is more land in any reservation than the Indians on that reservation can profitably use, such surplus lands must be so disposed of that the white man may get possession of them and come into contact with the Indians.
While the General Allotment Act established a mandate for allotting Indian lands, separate legislation was required to actually allot the lands of a particular Indian nation. Usually, government officials would negotiate with a tribe's leaders to secure their cooperation in the allotment process. In addition to the grant of individual lands and monetary compensation to the tribe, other incentives were given to induce Indians to relinquish their tribal lands. Often, however, these incentives failed to have their desired effect. But the government proceeded to allot the reservations anyway, even when doing so violated prior treaties with the affected Indian nation.
One of these incentives was the granting of American citizenship. Senator Dawes was a firm supporter of the efforts to “civilize” the Indians. Indians who agreed to have their lands allotted would be granted citizenship. “We do this,” he said, “in order to encourage any Indian who has started upon the life of a civilized man à to be one of the body politic in which he lives; giving the encouragement that if he so maintains himself, he shall be a citizen of the United States.”
Motivated by this sentiment, Dawes provided in the General Allotment Act two ways in which Indians could become citizens. First, American and state citizenship would be granted to an Indian upon the issuance of an allotment. In addition, the Act provided
That every Indian born within the territorial limits of the United States who has voluntarily taken up within said limits his residence, separate and apart from any tribe of Indians therein, and has adopted the habits of civilized life is hereby declared to be a citizen of the United States, and is entitled to all the rights, privileges, and immunities of such citizens, whether said Indian has been or not, by birth or otherwise, a member of any tribe of Indians within the territorial limits of the United States, without in any manner impairing or otherwise affecting the rights of any such Indian to tribal or other property.
To carry out this mandate, the treaties and agreements implementing the Allotment Act for specific Indian nations contained provisions allowing American citizenship to be granted upon issuance of an allotment. In addition, subsequent legislation established a procedure by which members of the Five Civilized Tribes could become American citizens upon application to a federal court.
The Secretary of the Interior also developed a procedure for determining when an Indian was “competent” and thus eligible for obtaining citizenship. From this process there developed a ceremony and oath that Indians being granted American citizenship were required to recite:
Representative of [Government] speaking:
For men: (Read white name), what is your Indian name? (Gives Indian name)
(Indian name), I hand you a bow and arrow. Take this bow and arrow and shoot the arrow. (Shoots arrow).
(Indian name), you have shot your last arrow. That means that you are no longer to live the life of an Indian. You are from this day forward to live the life of a white man. But you may keep that arrow, it will be to you a symbol of your noble race and of the pride you feel that you come from the first of all Americans.
(White name), take in your hand this plow. (Takes plow).
This act means that you have chosen to live the life of the white man--and the white man lives by work. From the earth we all must get our living, and the earth will not yield unless man pours upon it the sweat of his brow. Only by work do we gain a right to the land and enjoyment of life.
(White name), I give you a purse. This purse will always say to you that the money you gain from your labor must be wisely kept. The wise man saves his money, so that when the sun does not smile and the grass does not grow, he will not starve.
I give into your hands the flag of your country. This is the only flag you have ever had or ever will have. It is the flag of freedom, the flag of free men, the flag of a hundred million free men and women of whom you are now one. That flag has a request for you, (White name); that you take it into your hands and repeat these words:
“For as much as the President has said that I am worthy to be a citizen of the United States, I now promise to this flag that I will give my hands, my head, and my heart to the doing of all that will make me a true American citizen.”
And now beneath this flag I place upon your breast the emblem of citizenship. Wear this badge of honor always; and may the eagle that is on it never see you do aught of which the flag will not be proud.
Obtaining American citizenship through the allotment process changed slightly as the result of amendments to the General Allotment Act inserted in 1906. The Burke Act amendments postponed the granting of citizenship until after a patent in fee simple had been issued to the affected Indian. This was intended to delay the granting of citizenship until after the end of the twenty-five-year trust period on allotments. However, the Burke Act also allowed for that time period to be shortened upon the Secretary's determination that an Indian was “competent” to manage his own affairs.
Depending upon one's perspective, the Allotment Policy was either an abysmal failure or a wild success. On the one hand, the social reformers greatly underestimated the magnitude of their “Indian problem.” Rather than improving the lives of individual Indians, the Allotment Act actually made their condition worse. Vested with their land allotment, Indians did not quickly assimilate to the agrarian lifestyle as had been hoped. Oftentimes this was due to the poor quality of the land that they had been allotted (the better quality “surplus” lands were reserved for sale to Whites) or the inability to manage the business of agriculture. As a result, the human condition of Indian people was dramatically diminished by allotment.
On the other hand, the Allotment Policy was a “success” because it divested Indians of their land. Indians easily lost their allotments at the end of the trust period. Absent good credit, many were forced at some point to pledge their allotment to obtain loans. When the mortgagor invariably defaulted, the bank took title to the allotment, which was relieved of the trust period after twenty-five years, and sold at auction to Whites. While it is not known whether this was part of the original allotment plan, through the foreclosure process and the outright sale of the surplus lands, two-thirds of all Indian lands held in 1887--87 million acres--were lost to Whites by 1934.
While Congress eventually was pressured to accept that the Allotment Policy was a failure for the Indians, the change in policy that it brought about clearly had long-term effects. Certainly the transferring of large quantities of Indian land to non-Indians made possible further American colonial expansion in the West. In addition, the way in which the land was taken greatly promoted the assimilating purpose that was intended. For example, the irregular distribution of land to non-Indians made many reservations look like “checkerboards,” a condition that has continued to the present day. Thus, Gates' original plan of promoting the “wise intermingling of the right kind of civilized men with the Indians” actually was achieved. Both this “intermingling” and the allotment of land itself contributed to the breakup of tribal life and the rise of individualism amongst Indians living in such territories. In fact, some Indians have so assimilated the colonizing nation's property values that they have thwarted modern efforts by Congress to remedy the checkerboarding problem that would directly benefit their tribal nation.
Thus, while it was not readily obvious to federal policymakers at the time, the Allotment Policy successfully implemented the Indian “civilization” agenda. These “successes” occurred primarily through the government and missionary sponsored boarding schools that were established. With such captive young audiences (literally), these schools were able to effectuate both the conversion of Indians to Christianity and indoctrination in the American way of life. Indeed, federal Indian agents were told that “[t]he great purpose which the Government has in view in providing an ample system of common school education for all Indian youth of school age, is the preparation of them for American citizenship.” To maximize success in this endeavor, these agents were instructed to tell teachers in the Indian schools to “carefully avoid any unnecessary reference to the fact that [their students were] Indians.”
The adoption of the Allotment Policy also had the permanent effect of changing the debate surrounding the issue of granting American citizenship to all Indians. Once the Policy was adopted, it was no longer the case that federal policymakers believed that a distinct Indigenous existence should be preserved. Instead, it was generally accepted that the Indian population should be absorbed into American society. Senator Orville Platt accurately described the future of federal Indian policy in 1892 when he said that “[o]ur whole policy in dealing with the Indian has changed. It is now the purpose of the government to wipe out the line of political distinction between the Indian citizens and other citizens of the Republic.”