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Frequently in public policy regulations that have nefarious intentions are obscured in a cloak of beneficence. Generally, the deeper you explore the history and the context behind the regulation or law its true purpose is eventually exposed. This is particularly true of many of the laws passed by the federal government intended to “help” Native Americans. Many of these paternal laws have done nothing more than subordinate the voluntary associate of tribal members to the authority of the federal government. I am not necessarily a proponent of the lofty, wide-eyed, and quixotic brand of social justice espoused by the contemporary left. But many of these laws impose notable restrictions on the natural rights of tribal members. Such as violating property rights, free association, contract enforcement, and even the right to self-determination. Regardless of the ethnicity of an individual, these rights should be upheld to all people. This isn’t so much a plea for equality of outcome, but rather a firmly held moral concern.  When the law is weaponized to legalize crimes against persons and property, the law has failed to achieve its ends.

One such act that codified a gross injustice against the native people of the United States was the Dawes Act of 1887. Colloquially known as the General Allotment Act. The legislation was sponsored by Massachusetts Senator Henry L. Dawes and was enacted in February 1887. The act provided the authority to the executive branch to allocate “.. portions of Reservation land to individual Indians..” for agricultural purposes. (p. 19-20) 160 acres would be provided to head-of-household and 80 acres to other individual tribe members.  The acreage was doubled if the land was only suitable for grazing (p.20). The aloof Baptists in this scenario justified this act on the moral grounds that this would help the native tribes in the long run. Alleviating the poverty tribal members experienced. Through providing land for cultivation the natives could be elevated to being a middle-class farmer and better assimilate to American society (p.19). If history is any indicator, good intentions and legislation have the propensity to result in tragic consequences for American Indians. Unwittingly, the good intentions of these nineteenth-century social justice warriors provided a moral smokescreen that allowed less sympathetic individuals to utilize the law for their callous benefit.

Land disputes between Natives and European settlers are nothing new. These disagreements date back to the early colonial period of America. Typically, the Native tribes received protection from the aggressive advances on tribal land by colonists from Britain. This is why during the revolution most tribes aligned themselves with the crown (p.10).  Then after the new republic was formed, the Articles of Confederation delegated the power of addressing Indian affairs with the federal government. This was done to preemptively avoid military conflicts with the tribes over land. Due to the financial stresses of the Revolutionary War (p.10). Under U.S. Const. Art I, Sec 8, Cl 3.  and Art II, Sec 2, Cl 2  congress was provided with the power to regulate tribal commerce and the President with the ability to make treaties with the tribes (p.11). All done in the name of stability. Placing the federal government in the precarious situation of balancing the interests of the Natives and settlers. Otherwise, the demise of the young republic may have been inevitable.

Fast-forwarding approximately a century, it clear there has been a long-established that many Caucasian Americans perceived tribal people as more of an obstacle than their indigenous neighbors. Making these individuals the proverbial bootleggers of the Dawes Act. Why?  What do the Americans vying with the Natives for land have to gain from this law?  The act was enacted in the absence of any consent requirements (p.21). Making it easy for the federal government to divide up the land without any tribal input.  To get the legislation to pass the law was amended to allow whites to purchase any remaining land. The result of the law being a drastic decrease in land ownership among tribal people. (p.21). Even worst, the land was not distributed in a manner that was logical to the needs of farming and grazing. Creating a  “checkerboard” pattern of “alternating white and tribal-owned land”. Making it impossible to utilize the land for grazing or farming (p.22).

 In the end, putting aside any good intentions, this policy only made matters worse. The policy not only was poorly implemented but was manipulated to benefit non-tribal members. Legislative rent-seeking at its finest!  Only provides further evidence that quite often all the downstream repercussions of regulations can rarely be considered. For a policy originally intended to lift Native Americans out of poverty did the exact opposite! Making this abject policy failure a shining example of what is referred to in the public policy as a cobra-effect. The Dawes Act only further deteriorated the economic quality of life of America’s Native people.  

6 thoughts on “Bootleggers and Baptists XIII: The Dawes Act of 1887

    1. Absolutely! As I continue to read American Indian Law: In A Nutshell by William C. Canby Jr. the more clear the picture becomes. Essentially most of the laws work against the tribes. For the most part. It is important to note the copy I am reading is outdated. It’s extremely interesting nevertheless.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Nice find by the way. This article provides a fair account of the other side of the story. Making the social justice account only half of the story.

          When push comes to shove, it is possible that some historians and politically motivated individuals have manipulated the narrative of past atrocities for their own gain. Creating a whole other b&b dynamic in its own right.

          That is a blog entry I have not considered B&B : Manipulation of the Gruesome facts of History.

          Yes, atrocities happened, but no one was totally innocent either. When resources are on the line, no one is a saint! (From the standpoint of two opposing groups that are willing to use force versus peaceful agreements to manage resources.)

          Liked by 1 person

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