Red into white : Attitudes toward Indian citizenship, 1869-1924



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The relationship between Indians and whites has remained unique from the time of the first cultural contacts until the present. Influenced by earlier ambiguous attitudes toward the Indian, colonial whites were unable to understand the Indian's "savage" character and unwilling to allow him to retain valuable land which, in the eyes of the whites, he apparently did not use. While some colonists forever doomed the Indian to his savage status, others hoped that Christianity and individual ownership of property would change the Indian's nature. The federal government encouraged the Indian to take up private property whenever he could. As pressures for land increased in the 1850's, the government secured many treaties which provided for either immediate or ultimate allotment of new tribal lands. In some cases, citizenship was granted to entire tribes. Although whites anticipated the day when Indians would have their own homesteads, the government in the 1860's continued to gather Indians on reservations in an effort to protect the white movement west. But with the recognized failure of the "Peace Policy" and reformers' demands that Indians be made citizens, society reexamined the proposed solutions to the "Indian problem." Under the impression that private property would civilize the Indian and in an effort to clarify the Indian's legal status, congressmen introduced general allotment and citizenship bills beginning in 1869. Although the Coke Bill of 1881 contained many of the provisions which were later incorporated in the Dawes Act, it lacked the necessary broad-based support for passage. The Crow Dog case of 1883 and Elk v. Wilkins case of 1884, however, attracted national attention to the civil status of the Indian. Individual reformers and Indian rights groups abandoned earlier cautions and pressed for adoption of a general allotment and citizenship bill. Earlier alternatives no longer seemed applicable. Revealing that previous efforts to civilize the Indians through allotment and citizenship had failed, Indians and the National Indian Defense Association protested the adoption of the Dawes Act. Nevertheless, provisions of the Dawes Act were altered to gain sufficient support for passage in 1887. The bill, clearly a compromise measure though not a partisan one, had the support of such incongruous groups as land speculators and philanthropists, the military and reformers. Hailed as the beginning of the end of the "Indian problem," the Dawes Act represented the victory of those who had proposed that the Indian's character could be changed if the reservations were broken up and each Indian was given a plot of land. By farming his own land and becoming economically self-sufficient the Indian would learn to compete with the white man and if he survived, he would be civilized. To further expose the Indian to natural civilizing forces, those Indians who took allotments were also made citizens and subject to all criminal and civil laws of the states and territories. Most supporters of the Dawes Act had originally hoped that allotment would work by itself. Although many Indian experts belatedly acknowledged that education was necessary to "uplift" the Indian, the type of education recommended was not really the agricultural education the Indian needed if, as the Jeffersonian agrarians hoped, he became a self-sustaining farmer. Consumed by the magical powers of private property and steeped in late nineteenth century individualism and laissez-faire, friends of the Indian and the government failed to provide sufficient economic and educational aid to transform the Indian. In a period of rapid industrialization and urbanization they ignored the fact that white farmers were becoming increasingly discontented. They also dismissed earlier failures of the allotment and citizenship policy. But if the Dawes Act was a misconception, it was also misapplied. The same groups which had prompted the government to adopt the allotment policy, operated in the nineties to hasten its application, execution, and ultimately its subordination. Confusion and abuse resulted from the fact that Indian citizens were both subject to special federal regulations and state criminal and civil laws. The decision of the Heff case in 1905, however, caused Congress to reconsider its relationship to the Indians. In partial rejection of the idea that citizenship and private property would civilize all Indians, Congress passed the Burke Act of 1906. This Act represented both an attempt by Congress to correct earlier ambiguities which had resulted from the citizenship clause of the Dawes Act and an effort to resume its regulatory authority over Indian allottees. Congressional authority was further extended and affirmed in a series of higher court decisions. Although many Indians were declared citizens during the administration of Woodrow Wilson and veterans of World War I received citizenship in 1919 in recognition of Indian contributions to the war, the Board of Indian Commissioners officially recognized the failure of allotment in its report for 1921. The government subsequently slowed down the issuance of patents-in-fee to Indians. Upon the recommendation of a separate advisory committee, however, the Secretary of Interior and the Commissioner of Indian Affairs encouraged the passage of a general citizenship act in 1924. The idea of citizenship was directly associated with private property and the white man's hope that the Indian would become economically self-sufficient. The civil rights of the Indian citizen, however, were in no way as highly regarded as his property rights. Only when his property rights obviously became endangered in the first decade, did Congress reconsider the effect of citizenship and alter its original view. Believing the Indian's legal status to be inferior to that of whites, several states denied Indians full political participation. Finally, in recognition of earlier Indian arguments that improvement of the individual could best be accomplished through continued protection and progress of the tribe, the government by 1934 offered the Indians a return to tribal life and continued its federal regulation and protection. Private property and citizenship alone had not civilized the Indian.



History, United States, Nineteenth century, Twentieth century, Indigenous people of North America, Dawes Act