“The sins of the father are to be laid upon the children”
William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice
European negotiations with Native Americans have always been circumspect. The phrase “As long as the grass grows and the river flows” introduced in 1722 has been repeatedly abused. Whether or not Alexander Morris, Commissioner of King George I, was sincere when he first included those words in a treaty will never be known. But over 300 broken American treaties later it can be firmly established that his successors were not. For example, among the many negotiations it has never been determined whether or not the Indian Removal Act of 1830 was a sincere effort, a ruse or just a temporary solution by the government to relocate Indian tribes away from the growing white population east of the Mississippi. But within 47 years after the Eastern Cherokee arrived in Northeastern Oklahoma and occupied their new home, the Dawes Act dissolving Indian Nations was approved by Congress. It put in motion one more betrayal between the federal government and Native Americans. However in an ironic twist of fate, because of what has become known as “fractionation,” the tables have been turned, American citizens are now paying millions of dollars to underwrite inheritance paperwork initiated by our forefathers courtesy of the United States government. Fractionation of plots of land allocated to Native Americans first occurs when the original owners die and the land is awarded to their heirs. When those heirs die, the next generation, more heirs receive a smaller portion and when those heirs die it continues to multiply. Each successive generation receives a smaller fraction of the original plot of land, hence the term “fractionation.” For example, one 80 acre parcel currently in existence has 2,285 individual owners who received a minuscule return on their “ownership.” Unless some action is taken, in 50 years it is projected that plot will have nearly 535,000 owners. The present annual cost to administer this 80 acre plot is $150,000, in 50 years the estimated cost will be 60 million! Currently, in Eastern Oklahoma there are 68,468 plots, nationally there are 3.5 million all presently monitored at the expense of the taxpayer through the Bureau of Indian Affairs at a cost of over $300 million a year.
It all began in 1887 when President Grover Cleveland signed the Dawes Act into law giving officials authority to divide what Native Americans considered their “common property” into allotments. It ended thousands of years of native tradition, communal holding of property. Native Americans were unfamiliar with the European concept of “owning” land. It had been their belief for centuries that no one person could own land anymore than they could own the sun. As a result, there was suspicion and reluctance to participate, so many didn’t take their allotments when Dawes was enacted. The Act was also slowly implemented on a tribe-by-tribe basis, a process that lasted until 1934.
The Dawes Act allocated heads of families160 acres, a single person or orphan 80 acres and eligible persons under 18 forty acres. Everyone who received a land allotment was granted United States citizenship. As tribes were contacted, participants had four years to obtain their land, afterward a selection would be made for them by the Secretary of Interior.
The Dawes system also used “blood quantum” as a means of awarding land grants. In the belief that it was less likely “full bloods” would become successful farmers, Dawes commission members often assigned “full blood status” to Native Americans who appeared to be “poorly assimilated” (looked Indian) or were deemed legally incompetent. “Mixed blood status” was assigned to those who mostly resembled whites. Commission members also discriminated in awarding the size of allocations, “full bloods” were allocated relatively small parcels of land whereas “mixed bloods” were deeded larger and more productive tracts.
Initially, the Five Civilized Tribes were exempted from the Dawes Act, but when it became clear they would not cooperate in joining Oklahoma Territory to form the state of Oklahoma, in 1898 the Curtis Act was approved. The Curtis Act extended provisions of Dawes to include them. It dissolved Indian governments, including tribal courts, and gave federal government representatives authority to determine legitimate members of the tribe. In a final attempt at governing themselves, the Five Tribes organized and presented a proposal to become the state of Sequoyah, but the proposal was completely ignored by Congress.
And so the seeds were sown for the current financial predicament well over a century ago. It’s difficult to sum up in words what describes the results of government officials breaking agreements with Native Americans time after time. The adage “history repeats itself” doesn’t seem to fit the current predicament, although if many of the other governments fumbles are taken into account, maybe it does. So searching for the right descriptive statement is difficult. Perhaps another more fitting might be “what goes around comes around.” But in retrospect, probably the most appropriate observation is best described by what grandma always said, “the chickens have finally come home to roost.”
Bruce Howell is an author and retired educator. His work includes 1806, an exploration of the Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory. He resides on Grand Lake with his wife, Kay.