The Outcome of Our Ernest Endeavors
The Indian may now become a free man; free from the thraldom of the tribe; free from the domination of the reservation system; free to enter into the body of our citizens. This bill may therefore be considered as the Magna Carta of the Indians of our country.
Back in 1887, well-meaning reformers had persuaded Congress to pass the Dawes Act. It provided for each head of an Indian family to be given 160 acres of farmland or 320 of grazing land. Then, all the remaining tribal lands were to be declared "surplus" and opened up for whites. Tribal ownership -- and the tribes themselves -- were meant simply to disappear.
"The Dawes Act was a way to break up the whole tribal structure of Native American nations. Instead of saying you are a group of people, all of a sudden you are individual land owners, you are Americans. And so it was designed to break up community, to civilize people, make us farmers, and also break up our tribal structure."
In 1889, the same year as the Oklahoma land rush, two Eastern women arrived at the Nez PercÚ reservation in Idaho determined to implement the Dawes Act. Alice Fletcher was a leader of the group that called itself the "Friends of the Indians," a pioneer in the emerging field of ethnology, and one of the architects of the new law.
Her companion was Jane Gay, a sometime poet who had learned the art of photography to document their time with the Indians. They had come, they believed, to "save" the Nez PercÚ from themselves -- by dividing up their land and making them homesteaders.
Alice explained... the land allotment... and her wish that the whole people would see the wisdom of the great change... At length one man stood up, a tall, broad-shouldered fellow... He said, "We do not want our land cut up in little pieces..." A groan of assent ran along the dark line of Sphinxes... "We must come together and decide whether we will have this law..." She told them that there is nothing for them to decide... The law must be obeyed.
Alice Fletcher immediately set to work marking off the new boundaries on the reservation. The Nez PercÚ came to call her the "Measuring Woman."
Chief Joseph himself came to pay a visit. After his long flight from the army in 1877, he had been exiled to Oklahoma, and then allowed to return to a reservation in eastern Washington -- but not to his beloved homeland, the Wallowa Valley in Oregon. Using a new device -- a wax cylinder -- Fletcher convinced Joseph to record one of his traditional songs. But she could not talk him into taking an allotment of land.
He will have none but the Wallowa Valley, from which he was driven; he will remain landless and homeless if he cannot have his own again. It was good to see an unsubjugated Indian. One could not help respecting the man who still stood firmly for his rights, after having fought and suffered and been defeated in the struggle for their maintenance.
Alice Fletcher kept at it for four long years, trying to divide Indian lands fairly while fending off whites who sought to persuade her to leave the best land for them. By the time she was finished, she had made more than 2,000 Nez PercÚ allotments -- over 175,000 acres. Then she and Jane Gay started east to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Fletcher had been awarded a fellowship at Harvard's Peabody Museum.
In the week's journey home across the continent, we shall have time to review the outcome of our earnest endeavors... But if it has been well for us, and well for the Indian... is not for us to know. We can only leave the question among the unsolvable, whose multitude grows ever greater as life goes on.
The Dawes Act, meant to help Indians, devastated them instead. In 1895, the remaining half million unallotted acres of Nez PercÚ tribal land were declared "surplus" and opened for homesteading. By 1910, there would be 30,000 whites within the Nez PercÚ reservation -- and just 1,500 Nez PercÚ.
Across much of the West, the story would be the same. Before the Dawes Act, some 150 million acres remained in Indian hands. Within twenty years, two-thirds of their land was gone.
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