Should Tribal Land Be Given Out To Individual Indians?

For more than ten years well-intentioned reformers, who characterize themselves as friends of the Indians, have tried to get Congress to pass a law that would break up tribal lands. They argue that Native People should hold their own individual 160 acres—like white people. They believe that individual land ownership will hasten the assimilation of Indians into white society. Opponents of the plan hold that such a law would destroy Indian ways and that whites would eventually gain ownership of the land. In Washington, D.C. the argument rages: should such a law be enacted? The viewpoints expressed below come from the Congressional Record.

Russell Errett, member of the U.S. House of Representatives, a Republican from Pennsylvania.

The plan of this bill is not, in our judgment, the way to civilize the Indian. However much we may differ with the humanitarians who are riding this hobby, we are certain that they will agree with us in the proposition that it does not make a farmer out of an Indian to give him a quarter-section of land. There are hundreds of thousands of white men, rich with the experiences of centuries of Anglo-Saxon civilization who cannot be transformed into cultivators of the land by any such gift. Their habits unfit them for it; and how much more do the habits of the Indian, begotten of hundreds of years of wild life, unfit him for entering at once and peremptorily upon a life for which he has no fitness. It requires inclination, agriculture, and training in farm life to make a successful farmer out of even white men, many of whom have failed at the trail of it, even with an inclination for it. How then, is it expected to transform all sorts of Indians, with no fitness or inclination for farming, into successful agriculturists?  Surely an act of Congress, however potent in itself, with the addition of the discretion of a Secretary of the Interior, no matter how much of a doctrinaire he may be, are not sufficient to work such a miracle.
The whole training of an Indian from his birth, the whole history of the Indian race, and the entire array of Indian tradition, running back for at least four hundred years, all combine to predispose the Indians against this scheme for his improvement, devised by those who judge him exclusively from their standpoint instead of from his.
The main purpose of this bill is not to help the Indian, or solve the Indian problem, or provide a method for getting out of our Indian troubles so much as it is to provide a method for getting at the valuable Indian lands and opening them up to white settlement. When the Indian has got his allotments, the rest of the land is to be put up to the highest bidder, and he is to be surrounded in his allotments with a wall of fire, a cordon of white settlements, which will gradually but surely hem him in, circumscribe him, and eventually crowd him out.

Henry S. Pancoast, member of the Indian Rights Association, a white reform organization.

For many years past those who have given earnest thought to the best method of placing the Indian on a right footing among us, and patient effort to accomplish this result, have united in the belief that the allotment of land to individual Indians by a secure title would prove one of the most powerful agencies in the advancement of the race.
It has been often pointed out that we have by our policy taken from the Indian the ordinary and essential stimulus to labor. While under our system of pauperizing Indians by the issuing of rations we deprive them of the ordinary necessity for self support, by our refusal to protect them in the possession of their land and by our incessant removals we take away the common motives for cultivating it. The great mass of men work from the imperative necessity for self-support, and from the knowledge that the law will protect them in the possession of their rightful earnings. We have so alienated the Indian from all natural and general conditions, we have placed him in such an artificial and unjust position, that he has neither the necessity for self-support nor any proper protection in the result of his labor. It is a matter of surprise to all who fairly consider all the elements in the case, not that the result is no better, but that it is not far worse.
To give the Indian, then, a secure title to land, so that he may have the assurance of reaping what he has sown, is the plainest justice and good policy.
The thought and labor of those who have long worked for this end has taken shape in a most carefully and skillfully prepared bill for the allotment to Indians in severalty of land on the reservations. This bill is the outcome of long and intimate experience in the condition of the various Indian tribes; the result of a rare combination of practical knowledge and legal training. Its passage will greatly affect for the better the lives of nearly three hundred thousand human beings, besides the incalculable and yet wider influence in the life of a race and in the settlement of a question of national importance.

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

Subject Matter

Social Studies

North Star Dakotan:

Journals and Art Work: The Indian People, The Trade, and The Land

The Indian People

The Purchase and Exploration of Louisiana

The Fur Trade

Dakota Territory

The Military Frontier

The Reservation System

George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn

The Great Dakota Boom, 1878-1890

Reservation Troubles, 1886-1890

The Making of a State and a Constitution

The North Dakota Economy, 1890-1915

Life on the Indian Reservations

The North Dakota National Guard and the Philippines

North Dakota, The Great War and After

The Nonpartisan League's Rise to Power

The Nonpartisan League in Power

The Nonpartisan League's Decline

The 1920s

1930s: North Dakota's Economic and Political Climate

The New Deal in North Dakota

The Road to World War II

North Dakota and American Society

North Dakota Optimism and Economic Developments

North Dakota and Political Change