native americans and grover clevelend -- 11/28/22

Today's selection -- from A Man of Iron by Troy Senik. Grover Cleveland was often confronted with the seemingly intractable problems associated with U.S. relations with Native Americans, since his two terms in office coincided with the disastrous attempts to assimilate them into U.S. society:

"[Grover Cleveland] even deflected criticism of the fearsome violence some Native Americans had demonstrated -- an especial anxiety given the trail of carnage the recently escaped Geronimo had left in the West, where he was prone to murder whites without pretext -- if only to counter those who would use it as a pretext for ethnic cleansing. 'It is useless to dilate upon the wrongs of the Indians,' he told Congress, 'and as useless to indulge in the heartless belief that because their wrongs are revenged in their own atrocious manner, therefore they should be exterminated.'

"By all accounts, his conviction that Native Americans deserved treatment as equals was in earnest, and it earned him the admiration of some of their defenders. Helen Hunt Jackson, whose 1881 book, A Century of Dishonor, chronicled the long legacy of Indian mistreatment, was not known for mincing words with politicians. When the volume was released, she sent copies to members of Congress emblazoned with the inscription 'Look upon your hands! They are stained with the blood of your relations,' Yet from her deathbed, she wrote to Cleveland, then barely six months on the job, 'I am dying happier for the belief I have that it is your hand that is destined to strike the first steady blow toward lifting this burden of infamy from our country and righting the wrongs of the Indian race.'

"As his presidency progressed, Cleveland became convinced that the reservation system was a millstone around the Indians' neck; that its net effect would be to retard their development and exacerbate the inevita­ble tensions with white settlers. The only solution, in his judgment, was assimilation. That meant education, English language acquisition, and, most important, doing away with the practice of collective landowner­ship on the reservations and transitioning to a system of private property that would allow for economic initiative and capital formation.

"While Cleveland grew increasingly persuaded that this was the only means by which the Indians could be fully reconciled to American life, he remained cautious about taking any affirmative steps. Mindful of how divergent the circumstances were between tribes, he dispatched federal commissioners early in his term to make reports on their varying levels of 'civilization.' He was dedicated to their betterment, but con­vinced that a one-size-fits-all policy that failed to account for tribal vari­ation might be only marginally less harmful than outright neglect. Some tribes, he argued, longed for private property, while others resisted it. Some were on land that would be appropriate for grazing, but had no flocks; some on land ideal for farming but with no agricultural imple­ments. There were cultural divisions, too, which he expressed in ugly terms consistent with the paternalistic view most policymakers took at the time: 'While some are lazy, vicious, and stupid, others are industri­ous, peaceful, and intelligent.'

"In 1887, Massachusetts senator Henry Dawes authored a piece of legislation -- officially titled the General Allotment Act but known ever after as the Dawes Act -- that would open the door to private property for Native Americans. Under the terms of the law, reservation lots be­tween 40 and 160 acres (depending on whether the land was being given to an individual or a family) would be converted into privately owned parcels, though it was stipulated that the land could not be sold for twenty-five years, on fears that the newly propertied Indians would accept unreasonably low offers to sell. Upon taking one of these allot­ments, the property owner gave up his tribal status and became a U.S. citizen, obligated to pay taxes and able to vote (although, in practice, many jurisdictions went to great pains to keep Native American voters from casting a ballot).

"Grover Cleveland signed the Dawes Act and demonstrated genuine enthusiasm for its goals. Still, he kept his ambitions modest, stat­ing when he first began considering proposals for individual property ownership, 'I should desire to do much and place it among the achievements of my administration, yet probably I can only make a beginning.' And even well after the legislation was in force he contin­ued to sound cautious notes, writing at one point to his second-term secretary of the interior, Hoke Smith, that 'the good and welfare of the Indian should constantly be kept in view, so that when the end is reached citizenship may be to them a real advantage, instead of an empty name.'

"Those cautious notes would prove well founded. The policy of 'assimilation' proved a disaster, though many of the ills frequently at­tributed to the law Cleveland signed are actually the consequences of policy changes that occurred later on. In 1891 (between Cleveland's two terms), the Dawes Act was amended to allow the properties to be leased to non-Indians, a response to the rapacious white appetite for western lands. Though Dawes had provided that any land remaining unallot­red after the division into private parcels could be sold to the federal government, it stipulated that the provision required tribal consent and had to be negotiated 'on such terms and conditions as shall be considered just and equitable between the United States and said tribe of Indians.' The Supreme Court's infamous ruling in the 1903 Lone Wolf case, however, left the tribes virtually powerless to resist federal coercion. In 1906, the Burke Act augmented Dawes by stipulating that natives would only receive title to their land at the end of the twenty-five-year period if the Department of the Interior deemed them 'competent,' a judgment left to the discretion of federal employees. Moreover, it delayed their acquisition of citizenship until title was granted, whereas Dawes had provided it at the time the property was allotted.

"The result was a debacle. By 1934 -- when the Indian Reorganization Act halted outsiders' access -- nearly 50 percent of the lands were no longer in Indian hands. That may have been a tolerable price to pay if the natives were flourishing. Many tribes, however, had resisted the push toward private property as anathema to their traditions. And even many others who did opt into the system found themselves stuck with lands unsuited for farming or ranching (160 acres was often insufficient for a viable farm in dry western climates), despite the fact that federal officials were charged with helping them find productive parcels. In fact, Indian farming would actually decline under the arrangement. Per­haps the situation would have wound up otherwise if the men on the ground had the same fiduciary convictions as the president they served. But how commendable was a policy that could not be successfully car­ried out unless placed in the hands of extraordinary men? Whatever the Dawes Act occasioned, it was not the renaissance for which the presi­dent had hoped."



Troy Senik


A Man of Iron


Threshold Editions


Copyright 2022 by Troy Senik


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