Reservation Troubles, 1886-1890: Overview
Throughout the nineteenth century the solution most commonly prescribed for the “Indian problem” was allotment, the breaking up of communal tribal lands into individually owned parcels. Destruction of tribal ties would, the proponents argued, promote the civilization and assimilation of Indian people. The goal was to turn Native people into responsible citizen-farmers.
In 1883 a group of eastern reformers organized the Friends of the Indian to promote what they believed to be policy “in the best interests of the Indian people.” Their legislative aims were allotment and citizenship, in time, for Indians. Through persistent lobbying, the Friends of the Indian convinced Congress to pass the General Allotment Act (Dawes Act) in 1887. Each Indian head of household received a 160-acre homestead. Single persons over the age of 18 and orphans under the age of 18 got 80 acre. All boys under 18 were given 40 acres. Girls were excluded. Those who abandoned their tribe and took up “the habits of civilized life” would be granted citizenship. The government opened up land that was not needed for allotment to white settlement.
As a result of the allotment program, Indian landholdings declined sharply from 139 billion acres in 1887 to 34 million acres in 1934.
The Dawes Act was the last straw for Indians who had seen the government slowly but surely dismantle their lives and culture. Western Indians, especially Sitting Bull’s Lakota people, closed the decade of the 1880s with feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. Penned up on a reservation, the old ways were gone. The buffalo hunt which was so much a part of life gave way to dependence on the government for rations and other necessities.
A Paiute holy man, Wovoka, gave Indian people a new hope. From his home in Nevada he preached a moral code: “Do not tell lies. Do right always. Live in peace. Do not harm anyone.” He envisioned a blissful world where Indians would be free of the white burden and live forever among all generations of Indians. It was a land without white people—a land free from sickness and want. Whites would be removed from the new world not by violence but by supernatural means. He foretold that the earth would tremble in 1891. Believers were instructed to place in their hair sacred feathers which would lift them high into the air while a new land covered the old. The new land would then move the white people back across the ocean from where they had come. When the whites were gone, believers would come down to a new world of joy and abundance.
Wovoka instructed the people in the Ghost Dance. By dancing the Ghost Dance, believers, wearing a special ghost shirt, would hasten the coming of the new world. Representatives from all the western tribes traveled to Nevada to learn about these things so they could instruct their people back home on the reservations.
The teachings of Wovoka took root among most western Indian tribes, but nowhere was it more fervently embraced than among the Lakota of South and North Dakota. Only here did the Ghost Dance end with bloodshed.
As the Ghost Dance continued at the Rosebud and Pine Ridge Agencies, disorder intensified to the point that tribal police were helpless and white residents were afraid. On November 20, 1890, troops arrived to assist in containing the Ghost Dance. On December 14, an attempt to arrest Sitting Bull resulted in his murder; five days later, a confrontation between the army and Lakota at Wounded Knee left more than 200 Lakota dead. With the buffalo gone and land allotted, North Dakota’s native people, restricted to reservations, were forced to rely on government provisions and to try their hands at farming.
By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton
Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council