Social History for Every Classroom


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Federal Agents Hope to Change Indians' Attitudes about Land Ownership

Federal bureaucrats devised several methods to assimilate Native Americans into mainstream American values and culture. One strategy involved trying to change Native Americans' traditional sense of communally held land to a belief in individually held plots. Under the Dawes Act of 1887, the U.S. distributed parcels of land to Indians in severalty, meaning to individual families. According to its most vocal proponents, the legislation aimed to "civilize savage hearts" by turning hunters into commercial farmers, tribal land rights into private property, and communal values into the individual American work ethic. The U.S. government redistributed reservation lands to families in 160-acre homesteads with private deeds, and surplus lands were often sold cheap to white farmers at auctions.

[The Indian] must be imbued with the exalting egotism of American civilization so that he will say "I" instead of "We," and "This is mine" instead of "This is ours."  

--J.D.C. Atkins, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 1886

The allotment system [of deeding land to individuals and families] tends to break up tribal relations.  It has the effect of creating individuality, responsibility, and a desire to accumulate property.  It teaches the Indians habits of industry and frugality, and stimulates them to look forward to a better and more useful life, and, in the end will relieve the government of large annual appropriations.

--Hiram Price, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 1881

It should be industriously and gravely impressed upon them [the Indians] that they must abandon their tribal relations and take their lands in severalty, as the cornerstone of their complete success in agriculture, which means self-support, personal independence, and material thrift...

Every step taken, every move made, every suggestion offered, everything done with reference to the Indians should be with a view of impressing upon them that this is the policy which has been permanently decided upon by the Government in reference to their management.  They must abandon tribal relations, give up their superstitions; they must forsake their savage habits and learn the arts of civilization; they must learn to labor; and they must learn to rear their families as white people do, and to know more of their obligations to government and to society.  In a word, they must learn to work for a living, and they must understand that it is in their interest and duty to send their children to school...  An Indian who has gone up on land, opened a farm, built houses and fences, gathered around him some stock, and become self-sustaining, is prepared to understand the advantages of educating his children...

--J.D.C. Atkins, Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 1885

Source | Quoted in American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, "The Iron Horse vs. the Buffalo: Indian-Settler Conflict on the Great Plains: 1869-90," (Teacher's Handbook).
Creator | Various
Item Type | Government Document
Cite This document | Various, “Federal Agents Hope to Change Indians' Attitudes about Land Ownership,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed December 4, 2023,

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