Passed by Congress in 1887, the Dawes Act—formally known as the General Allotment Act—authorized the US government to survey and divide federal Indigenous reservations into private lots for individual tribal members. The Dawes Act’s central idea of “allotment” became the foundation of federal Indigenous policy well into the twentieth century, with disastrous results for Indigenous people in Colorado and throughout the nation.
Many white observers, such as Senator Henry Dawes of Massachusetts, the act’s sponsor, thought the law would help “civilize” Indigenous people and protect what remained of their land. However, as many Indigenous leaders realized, the Dawes Act undermined indigenous sovereignty and brought Indian land into the US legal system, which served only to benefit non-Indians. The Dawes Act provided the legal means for taking land away from Indigenous people. Between the passage of the act and the end of the allotment era in 1934, Indigenous lands in the United States were reduced by 60 percent.
The Dawes Act did not affect Indigenous people living in Colorado until 1895, when it became a divisive and damaging force on the Southern Ute Reservation. Disagreement over allotment split the original Southern Ute Reservation in two, resulting in the creation of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and the unallotted Ute Mountain Reservation. The rest of the Southern Ute Tribe accepted allotment and lost more than 523,000 acres under the policy, though it was able to recover almost half of that land in 1938.
In the late nineteenth century, the goal of most US Indigenous policy was to “civilize” Native Americans, that is, to have them adopt the values and traditions of Euro-American society. Although most Indigenous people lived on communally owned reservations, private land ownership and improvement were seen as fundamental aspects of transforming the Indigenous population. As a result, allotment—often referred to as severalty—was offered to some federally recognized tribes in treaties well before the 1880s.
Indigenous land protections were dealt a blow in 1871, when Congress’s Indian Appropriations Act invalidated the Supreme Court’s 1832 ruling that Indigenous people belonged to “sovereign nations.” Later, President Ulysses S. Grant turned over administration of Indigenous reservations—including Indian Agencies—to missionaries who sought to convert Indigenous people to Christianity, place their children in boarding schools, and force them to adopt farming, Western dress, and other non-Native ways of life. This policy had disastrous results across the nation. In Colorado, it led to such tragedies as the 1879 Meeker Incident and the opening of the Teller Indian School outside of Grand Junction.
Observing the manifest problems with missionary-led Indigenous policy, groups of sympathetic whites began to consider alternatives that would take a more humane—albeit paternalistic—approach to changing Indigenous people. In 1882 Philadelphian Herbert Welsh founded the Indian Rights Association, which investigated conditions on reservations and advanced ideas to bring Native Americans into “the common life of the people of the United States.” In the early 1880s, the Indian Rights Association and similar groups met to discuss potential legislation, attracting the attention of sympathetic politicians such as Dawes. Figuring that Indigenous land would be best protected by the same set of laws that protected non-Native land, the reformers developed the policy of allotment, and Dawes found plenty of support for the idea in Congress.
Allotting Indigenous Lands
As it was written, the Dawes Act offered to allot each Indigenous “head of a family” 160 acres, the size of a standard homestead. Those who accepted allotment would have their land protected in federal trust for twenty-five years, and at the end of that period they would receive title to the land as well as full citizenship. Later amendments to the act raised the maximum allotment size to 320 acres, but they also abolished the federal trust protection, allowed for the sale of unallotted or “surplus” lands to non-Natives, and allowed non-Natives to lease allotments.
In theory, the Dawes Act would persuade Indigenous people to abandon the tribal system altogether and become assimilated, solving the nation’s so-called "Indian problem." The act’s white supporters lauded its passage as progress in US-Indigenous relations. Charles Painter, of the Indian Rights Association, celebrated the act as “the only practical measure” to save Indigenous lands from unscrupulous whites; offering Indigenous people “a personal patent” on their land, he argued, was a stronger legal mechanism for protecting the land than treaties.
In practice, however, the amended Dawes Act and later allotment laws not only failed to protect Indigenous land, but actually facilitated its transfer to non-Natives. Many Indigenous people lacked the skills, money, or credit needed to start a successful farm, so they eventually decided to sell or lease their land to non-Natives. Sales of so-called surplus land further diminished tribal holdings, as did the deaths of “family heads,” whose allotments grew smaller as they were divided among an increasing number of heirs.
Resistance and Effects
Most Indigenous nations resisted allotment at the outset, seeing the new law as no different from the Indian agents and boarding schools that had already been forced on them. Reactions varied by nation, however. For example, in South Dakota, Lakota under Sitting Bull attacked fellow tribal members for agreeing to allotment, while in Oklahoma the Choctaw and Chickasaw studied the law extensively in order to get the fairest possible deal. The Dawes Act also helped stimulate a revival of the Ghost Dance among many Indigenous nations, as they appealed to the spiritual realm to help restore their lands and culture.
Allotment in Colorado
At the time of its passage, the Dawes Act did not apply to Colorado’s Southern Ute Reservation, because white Coloradans were more interested in removing their Indigenous neighbors than in breaking up the reservation. They nearly got their wish in 1888, when Congress passed a bill to remove the Southern Ute Tribe. The Saguache Democrat eagerly proclaimed that the Utes were “now ready to go” and that their removal would “throw open for settlement several hundred thousand acres of the best farming land in Colorado.” However, lawmakers from Utah and Colorado disagreed over where the Utes would be resettled, and Congress ultimately failed to pass the necessary follow-up legislation to the 1888 bill.
Having failed to remove the Utes outright, Congress eventually opted for allotment. In 1895, over the objection of President Grover Cleveland’s administration, lawmakers passed the Hunter Act, which essentially applied the Dawes Act to the Southern Ute Reservation. However, the Hunter Act differed from the Dawes Act in that it offered each of the tribe’s three bands the option to reject allotment and live in a separate part of the reservation.
Of the three bands, only the Weeminuche, led by Ignacio, refused allotment, seeing it as another attempt to undermine their sovereignty. They moved to the western part of the reservation, at the base of Sleeping Ute Mountain, and eventually established the Ute Mountain Reservation. Meanwhile, Sapiah (Buckskin Charley), one of the earliest Ute leaders to take up farming, advocated for the rest of the Southern Utes—the Muache and Capote—to accept allotment. He encountered plenty of opposition, but in the end the two bands narrowly voted to accept allotment.
As it did for other Indigenous nations, allotment drastically reduced the Southern Ute Reservation. In 1899 the federal government opened more than 523,000 acres of “surplus” Southern Ute land for sale to non-Natives; the Utes retained only about 73,000 acres in allotments.
For those Utes who held allotments, development often proved impossible, as the best water rights were already taken by whites upstream and farming equipment was unavailable or unaffordable. As a result, Ute landowners were often deemed “incompetent” and their land sold to non-Natives. Sale of allotted land continued into the twentieth century; as late as 1911, Southern Ute Reservation Superintendent Charles Werner reported selling 1,040 acres of inherited land and 1,400 acres of land held by “incompetent” Ute landowners.
Even though they rejected allotment, the Weeminuche still felt the effects of it because the fragmentation of the original Southern Ute Reservation restricted their access to good grazing land. In 1906 they lost even more hunting and grazing land when the government took 70,000 acres to form Mesa Verde National Park. This left them even more dependent on government rations, though they continued to sustain themselves by hunting, gathering, and trading.
End of Allotment
The era of allotment finally ended in 1934 with the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA). Part of the “Indian New Deal,” the IRA reestablished tribal governments and gave them authority to reconsolidate previously allotted lands. It even allowed for the restoration of “surplus” lands sold during the allotment era. Under the IRA, the Southern Ute Tribe was able to recover 220,000 acres, less than half of the “surplus” land it had lost under allotment.
While individuals—especially those who managed to start farms—may have benefitted from allotment, the policy decimated Indigenous identity and solidarity, leaving future generations to navigate a complicated US legal system just to reclaim their own land. Although its creators perhaps meant well, the Dawes Act splintered spiritually and culturally significant land that had been held communally for generations. For that reason, it is widely seen today as a key piece of the United States’ larger campaign of cultural genocide against Indigenous people.