In 1887, Senator Henry L. Dawes (R-MA), supported by the Friends of the Indian and other social reformers, pushed the General Allotment Act or Dawes Severalty Act (Dawes Act) through Congress under the guise of ‘civilizing’ American Indians by reinforcing the concept of private landownership. There were four basic tenets to Civilization: Private Landownership, Agriculture, Education, and Christianity. The text of the Dawes Act focused mainly on the first two tenets, calling for the division of communally owned tribal lands into individual plots or allotments; however, it also included provisions for the use of land by missionaries and educators (not always separate entities) to aid in the conversion of tribes from perceived savagery into ‘civilized’ members of society.
Many tribes resisted the ‘civilizing’ rhetoric of allotment and maintained their culture despite the overwhelming attempt to replace tribal culture with white culture. Since the release of the Meriam Report in 1928 which documented the incredible poverty levels, federal mistreatment of tribes, and failed treaty obligations, the Dawes Act has been under constant scrutiny by Native and non-Native scholars alike. Coupled with the facts and statistics, it is clear that the supposedly beneficial ‘civilizing’ rhetoric of Indian policy included enormous benefit to non-Indians themselves.
It is import to take a moment to address the implications of the term ‘civilization.’ Frequently used by white politicians, social reform organizations, newspapers, and even written into law, the nineteenth century’s obsession with assimilating Native Americans is undeniable. However, ‘civilization’ is much more than a manifestation of white supremacy. For the people affected by this obsession, it represented an imperialistic attack on their way of life, culture, religion, language, family, and future generations to name only a few. It is impossible to discuss the Dawes Act and other policies generated from the concept of ‘civilization’ without using the terminology of the oppressors themselves. In an effort to acknowledge the implications of using and thematically breaking down the term ‘civilization,’ from this point on, unless using a direct quote, the term will be capitalized.
Montana is home to seven Indian reservations and twelve different tribes. All but Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation were allotted between 1900 and 1934. Non-Indians within the local cities and towns pushed for the allotment of Montana reservations to gain access to desirable lands. Given its generally arid and cold climate, Montana is not ideal for agriculture or grazing without significant effort and financial burden. Poverty levels on reservations during the Allotment era indicate the failure of the Allotment Act to impose agriculture and ranching as new methods of economic development. Examining photographs from the six allotted reservations provides insight not only into the changes the Dawes Act had on the physical landscape, but also provides a glimpse into the lives of the affected people through the four tenets of Civilization.
This study should be used to situate the Dawes Act in Montana through analyses focusing on the themes of Civilization as represented in photographs. These photographs range in date from the 1880s through the 1940s, firmly establishing the landscape and lives of tribal communities before, during, and after the implementation of the Dawes Act. Some demonstrate the effectiveness of allotment (whether or not we agree with the motives of the act); others demonstrate the resiliency of Native communities to protect their cultures; others still indicate a fusion of both non-Indian and Indian culture. Users may browse the photographs chronologically, by tribe, or by the previously mentioned tenets of Civilization.