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What Happened to 90 Million Acres of Native American Land?

Between the 1890s and the 1930s, tens of thousands of Native Americans left their reservations and settled in cities and towns throughout the country. This mass migration was spurred in part by the Dawes Act, a federal law enacted in 1887 that broke up communally owned reservation lands and divided them into 160-acre plots that could eventually be sold.

Ford scholar Courtney Geiss ’18 with Dustin Frye, Associate Professor of Economics / Photo by Karl Rabe

The stated purpose of the Dawes Act was to enable Native Americans to assimilate into American culture, but some critics say the law was designed to help land speculators gain control of oil and other minerals on the reservations. Whatever federal authorities’ motives may have been, the Dawes Act had the indisputable effect of transferring Native Americans’ land to private ownership. By the time the Dawes Act expired in the mid-1930s, more than 90,000 Native Americans no longer owned their land and more than 90 million acres of the 150 million acres on the reservations had been transferred to private hands.

Courtney Geiss ’18 is spending the summer assessing the role federal authorities played in administering the Dawes Act. Geiss is working with associate economics prof. Dustin Frye under the auspices of Vassar’s Ford Scholars program, which enables selected students to engage in original research in the humanities or social sciences.

“We hope to gain a better understanding of the policies that governed the lives of those who lived on reservations,” Frye says. The research he and Geiss are doing this summer will be incorporated in a book on the Dawes Act that Frye is co-writing with UCLA economics prof. Christian Dippel.

Geiss, a history major from Charleston, SC, is examining federal land records and data on the agents who were assigned by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to carry out the policies contained in the Dawes Act. Sponsors of the law contended it would give Native Americans a bigger stake in mainstream American society. “The hope was that they’d become good Christian farmers,” Frye says. But critics say the law often had the effect of forcing families off the reservation by having them sell their 160 acres to speculators. “The more sinister implication is that many of these government agents were exploiting these families,” he says.

Geiss says the federal records she is analyzing don’t contain information on how much each plot of land sold for or what natural resources it might contain. But the data includes the names of the individual landowners, so she is able to determine which of them sold their land and where they migrated when they left the reservation. The records also contain the names of the federal agents who oversaw those sales.

Frye says many of the federal documents Geiss is examining this summer have never been scrutinized before. “Before this, perhaps one or two of these government agents have been spotlighted in research, but Courtney is looking at large numbers of these agents for the first time,” he says.

Geiss says her summer research project has been both fruitful and enlightening. She learned how to use Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software to analyze data from the Bureau of Land Management and honed her skill on Excel software to analyze census data. This will enable her to engage in more sophisticated research projects in the future, she says. But the project also enhanced her perspective on a topic she knew little about. “American history often ignores the narrative of the Native American, and as a history major, I’m fascinated to learn the story of how and why so many of them left the reservations,” she says.

--Larry Hertz

Posted by Office of Communications Thursday, July 28, 2016