Closing the Frontier

40d. Life on the Reservations

Apache prisoners
National Archives
Geronimo (on the right) and his son waiting for a train that transported them and other Apache prisoners to Florida, in 1886.

After being forced off their native lands, many American Indians found life to be most difficult. Beginning in the first half of the 19th century, federal policy dictated that certain tribes be confined to fixed land plots to continue their traditional ways of life.

The problems with this approach were manifold. Besides the moral issue of depriving a people of life on their historic land, many economic issues plagued the reservation. Nomadic tribes lost their entire means of subsistence by being constricted to a defined area. Farmers found themselves with land unsuitable for agriculture. Many lacked the know-how to implement complex irrigation systems. Hostile tribes were often forced into the same proximity. The results were disastrous.

The Dawes Act

Faced with disease, alcoholism, and despair on the reservations, federal officials changed directions with the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887. Each Native American family was offered 160 acres of tribal land to own outright. Although the land could not be sold for 25 years, these new land owners could farm it for profit like other farmers in the West.

Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia
A wedding, such as that of Kitty Medicine-Tail and Bear-Goes-to-the-Other-Ground at Crow Indian School in 1896, was just one of many civil proceedings confusing for government officials because of the many ways in which native Americans received English-language names.

Congress hoped that this system would end the dependency of the tribes on the federal government, enable Indians to become individually prosperous, and assimilate the Indians into mainstream American life. After 25 years, participants would become American citizens.

The Dawes Act was widely resisted. Tribal leaders foretold the end of their ancient folkways and a further loss of communal land. When individuals did attempt this new way of life, they were often unsuccessful. Farming the West takes considerable expertise. Lacking this knowledge, many were still dependent upon the government for assistance.

Many 19th century Americans saw the Dawes Act as a way to "civilize" the Native Americans. Visiting missionaries attempted to convert the Indians to Christianity, although they found few new believers.

"Americanizing" the Indians

Land not allotted to individual landholders was sold to railroad companies and settlers from the East. The proceeds were used to set up schools to teach the reading and writing of English. Native American children were required to attend the established reservation school. Failure to attend would result in a visit by a truant officer who could enter the home accompanied by police to search for the absent student. Some parents felt resistance to "white man education" was a matter of honor.

In addition to disregarding tribal languages and religions, schools often forced the pupils to dress like eastern Americans. They were given shorter haircuts. Even the core of individual identity — one's name — was changed to "Americanize" the children. These practices often led to further tribal divisions. Each tribe had those who were friendly to American "assistance" and those who were hostile. Friends were turned into enemies.

The Dawes Act was an unmitigated disaster for tribal units. In 1900, land held by Native American tribes was half that of 1880. Land holdings continued to dwindle in the early 20th century. When the Dawes Act was repealed in 1934, alcoholism, poverty, illiteracy, and suicide rates were higher for Native Americans than any other ethnic group in the United States. As America grew to the status of a world power, the first Americans were reduced to hopelessness.

On the Web
Carlisle Indian School
Carlisle Indian School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, operated from 1879 to 1918 to educate children from the reservations. This outstanding website provides the history of the school with sensitivity and detail. Look for a copy of a journal produced by the students, biographies, a special page on Jim Thorpe, and much more, including many excellent images.
The Disinherited
This webpage pulls together a number of National Archives photographs of native Americans at the time of westward expansion. Beside each thumbnail image is a description of the photo. Click on the thumbnail for a full-sized version of the image. Great resource!
The Outcome of Our Earnest Endeavors
Special Agent Alice Fletcher sincerely believed turning native Americans into individual landowners was in everyone's best interests. This webpage from The West website offers background information on Fletcher and excerpts of a journal kept by her companion, illustrating by example the good intentions behind the misguided Dawes General Allotment Act.
Phoenix Indian School
It's cheaper to educate Indians than to kill them. -Indian Commissioner Thomas Morgan speaking at the establishment of the Phoenix Indian School in 1891.
Many of the great native American leaders traveled to Washington to negotiate treaties. How were they received? What were the results?
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Native American health care practices were considered inferior by government administrators and most treatment was given off the reservation in the late 19th century. For Alaskans, that meant traveling to Portland, Oregon.
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Right living is the only road to long living, or to useful living, and the hygiene of the school room, the dormitory and the workshop is of more vital importance to the Indian child than to the child of any race further advanced in civilization, and hence of greater physical stamina. -Martha Waldron, 1896.
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If the Great Spirit had desired me to be a white man he would have made me so in the first place. He put in your heart certain wishes and plans; in my heart he put other and different desires. Each man is good in the sight of the Great Spirit. It is not necessary that eagles should be crows.
-Sitting Bull
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