Indian Land Dilemma, 1877

Congress hoped to improve the lives of American Indians with the Dawes Act of 1887, but what was meant as reform instead disrupted the Indians' cultural traditions without improving their economic conditions. Previously, the government had established reservations for Native Americans, which tribes ran as sovereign nations. Massachusetts Republican Henry L. Dawes, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, sponsored legislation to transfer these communally owned lands from tribes to individuals and to grant citizenship to those who participated. The Dawes Act aimed to encourage Indians to become farmers and to assimilate into American society, but it also permitted the Indians to sell their surplus land. By 1900, Indian-held land had decreased significantly from the 138 million acres under Native American control in 1887. The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 restored tribal authority over reservations and returned remaining lands to tribal ownership. By the beginning of the 21st century, about 54 million acres were held by American Indians.