This Date in Native History: On April 28, 1897, the Chickasaw and Choctaw, two of the Five Civilized Tribes, agreed to abolish tribal governments and communal ownership of land, opening the door to increased white settlement in Oklahoma’s Indian Territory.
The other three tribes—Cherokee, Creek and Seminole—quickly followed suit and abandoned their governments and traditional ideas of land ownership in favor of allotments distributed under the Dawes Severalty Act.
The Dawes Act, passed in 1887, stripped tribes of millions of acres of land, but the Five Civilized Tribes were exempt because of an 1830 treaty that promised them their land in Oklahoma for “as long as the grass grows and water runs.” In 1893, Congress authorized establishment of the Dawes Commission to convince the tribes to adopt the principles voluntarily.
“The hope was that the commission could persuade the governments of the Five Civilized Tribes to negotiate themselves out of existence,” Kent Carter wrote in his 1999 book, Dawes Commission: And the Allotment of the Five Civilized Tribes, 1893-1914.
“Allotment was supposed to promote assimilation into the dominant culture, clear the way for converting Indian Territory into a state and satisfy powerful groups seeking opportunities for economic development and profit,” Kent wrote. “However, when the tribal governments refused to cooperate in their own demise, Congress used its legislative power to abolish them.”
The federal government stripped the tribes of their authority and made it harder for them to maintain their traditional ways of life, said Charles Gourd, a Cherokee anthropologist who has studied the Dawes Act and Commission.
Backed into a corner by federal interference, tribes believed adhering to the Dawes Act was the best choice, Gourd said. Tribes realized that land ownership came with some authority, and that allotment was the highest kind of land ownership available to them.
“The Dawes Act is not Indian law, but basically white law applied to Indians,” he said. “There was this perception that this was the best deal we could get. They agreed to allotments to preserve certain amounts of land that could be held in trust for individuals and descendants. Basically, tribal governments took a step back and looked at the original sovereignty and decided in order to have a future, they had to have people and they had to have land.”
By 1902, all five tribes had forfeited their rights to governments and communal lands, paving the way for Oklahoma to become a state in 1907. By that time, the federal government had taken control of tribal governments, courts, and even public structures built on Indian land, said Stephen Greetham, chief general counsel for the Chickasaw Nation’s Division of Commerce.
“They took direct control over their tribal governments,” he said in an educational video. “Tribal legislatures were not allowed to meet without express federal government approval. The tribes were not allowed to elect their own governors or chiefs, and all affairs were directly controlled by the federal government. When the federal government came in, they took possession not only of the land and the oil and gas resources and the water resources, but they took control and possession of the pencils, the desks, the buildings, the whole kit and caboodle.”
Gourd, whose grandfather served as an interpreter for the Dawes Commission, called allotments a double-edged sword. The commission, also charged with determining who qualified for tribal membership, was the ultimate authority on who could receive an allotment.
An estimated 300,000 people applied for enrollment in tribes, but two-thirds were rejected. Although the Dawes Act was rescinded in 1934 and governmental control was returned to tribes in 1970, modern-day enrollment still hinges on the names listed on the original rolls, Gourd said.
“What has happened is that only those that got allotments and their descendants can get citizenship,” he said. “In order to claim citizenship, you have to have an ancestor on the Dawes Rolls.”