Loss of Indian land



Today in America, over 300,000 Indians do not have homes or they are living in socially and economically pathetic conditions in Indian reservations. The Dawes Act also known as the General Allotment Act of 1887 resulted in the loss of 90 million acres of land owned by Indians (Tighe, 2014). This represented close to two thirds of the total land under Indian custody. Between 1887 and 1934, an additional 60 million acres of Indian lands was given to non-Indians either through sale or transfer. Through the 1906 Burke Act, Indians lost 30 million acres more (Hacker & Haines, 2005). The control and ownership of these lands was fully seized from Indians although the lands were within the reserves. Eventually, the land which was commonly owned by Indians was split up into free land, Indian tribe land, trust land, non-Indian owned land and other land owned by individual Indians (Frye, 2012). This loss of millions of acres of Indian land disrupted their communal living and destroyed the “commons” around which their daily lives revolved.  They lost farmland and hunting grounds with buffalo which formed their main source of meat being killed by US troops. This paper will investigate the circumstances under which the Indians lost their lands and whether this massive loss of a common resource, in this case land, represents the tragedy of the commons for them.

Loss of Indian Lands to White Settlers

The period ranging from the early 17th century into the early 20th century saw the transfer of almost all the land in America from the Indians to white people (Qian, 2003). These transfers have been explained by historians in two ways. Some transformations took place as consensual transactions while others took the shape of violent conquests. However, the two theories of violence and consent cannot be true at the same time (Banner, 2007). Neither simple consent nor coercion answers the question of the complicated issue of land transfers. Instead, the result of the land struggles was determined by place, time and the power balance between the Whites and Native Americans. With the increase of White power, it became possible to establish legal institutions and the necessary rules for making and enforcing land transactions (Banner, 2007). There was no need for military force because the power for shaping the legal framework which would facilitate land ownership was more important. Consequently, white people in America were made to believe that they were purchasing land from Indians in the same manner they purchased land from other whites. The changes effected in the law pertaining to land ownership were subtle and unknown to the land owning Indians (Wolfe, 2006). From the perspective of the white Americans, uncultivated land that did not have permanent homes and buildings was wasted land. This mentality gave them the desire to turn all ‘unutilised’ land into land meant for useful purposes (Sandefur, Ceballos & Mannon, 2000). They believed that since the Indians were not putting the land to any use, it was their (whites) divine responsibility to seize it and make farms out of it. To make matters worse, Indians lacked any idea of owning land because believed that land does not belong to anyone (Merjian, 2011). A review of contemporary writings concerning treaties made by the various native tribes reveals that the tribes believed that by signing, they were only permitting the whites to use the land the same way they had done in earlier treaties (Sandefur, Ceballos & Mannon, 2000). It made them surprised to see whites shooting at them whenever they would try to hunt in the same lands.
The Indians also lost their lands because they were technologically inferior and demoralized. In the face of revolvers and repeating rifles, bows and arrows could not guarantee the Indians victory in any battle. As a result the whites killed many of them (Wolfe, 2006). In addition, they were weakened by diseases introduced by the whites, against which they did not have any resistance. Their rapidly falling numbers meant that their power to keep the Whiteman out of their lands was weakening. For example, Hacker & Haines (2005, p. 20) estimate that during removal, the 15% of the Choctaw population was lost. War and removal together resulted in the death of 50 percent of the members of the Seminoles and Creeks. On the “Trail of tears”, the Cherokee lost about 4,000 people out of the total 16,000 members that were being relocated in the 1830s (Hacker & Haines, 2005, p. 20). Changing ways of life also led to the decline of Indian populations. The death of wild game, being relocated and being confined on Indian reservations destroyed their subsistence means, plunging them into poverty and other problems such as susceptibility to disease and malnourishment.
The whites tricked Indians to sign treaties some of which they later violated when their hunger for land could no longer be contained. Putting a stop to treaties could only mean that native tribes could no longer be treated as sovereign nations (Sandefur, Ceballos & Mannon, 2000). Through different strategies, the Whites made attempts to weaken the control of tribal leaders as well as the justice systems of the Indians.
The desire of the U.S government to assimilate the Indians and make them civilized citizens became a conduit through which Indians lost their claim on common tribal lands (Banner, 2007). The whites saw the bonds between Indian tribes as a big impediment to assimilation of Indians into white society. Between 1880 and 1940, Indian assimilation formed the foundation for a big portion of government policy related to Indians (Merjian, 2011). This created the platform for Congress to enact the General Allotment Act or the Dawes Severalty Act 1887 whose purpose was to make Indians become farmers and join mainstream Americans (Qian, 2003). The federal government partitioned tribal lands into portions of 160 acres each (allotments) and issued them to individuals Indians.  Land allotted to individuals was then held in trust by government for 25 years (Merjian, 2011. This was meant to prevent the Indians from selling or being conned out of it by White men, which would mean that they go back to reserves. Based on the Act, Indians would become US citizens if they accepted the allotment, separate themselves from the tribe and took up civilization (Qian, 2003).
Those supporting the Dawes Act were interested in the destruction of Indian tribal loyalties as well as the reservation system, and give reservation lands to white settlers. Large tracts of land that remained after allotment were later disposed off at bargain prices to whites (Tighe, 2014). As it came to be, the allotment system became a disaster for native tribes. After their “surplus” tribal lands had been sold to white Americans, the Indian families also lost their allotted lands (Merjian, 2011). The poor Indians became landless, but most of them still stood against assimilation. By 1932, both allotted land and unclaimed land had been sold and the Indians were counting losses of over 100 million acres of the land they had before the passing of the Dawes Act, which represented 60 percent of what they owned prior to the passing of the Act (Qian, 2003). Since special treaties gave them self-government, Indian tribes were not included in the Dawes Act. However, the pressures created by white settlers and intimidation with the intention of obtaining Indian lands made president Harrison to announce in 1889 that settlers could occupy lands in Oklahoma as well as in other parts of the U.S whose land was suitable for farming. Different Indian tribes were subjected to pressure to sign allotment agreements to their lands (Wolfe, 2006). In 1901, the government declared native tribes in the Indian Territory, citizens of the U.S. In 1907, Oklahoma was made into one of the states in the Union. Consequently, Oklahoma Indians lost their land and sovereignty (Merjian, 2011). In most parts of the U.S, Indians had no choice, but to succumb to the trickery and forceful relocations planned and implemented by the U.S government.

Native American Economies and the ‘Tragedy of the Commons”

Native American economies did not suffer the tragedy of the commons because their lands were taken from them by the US government and sold to whites who occupied them. The phrase “tragedy of the commons” was coined by Garret Hardin to explain the situation when a common resource such as land has no particular ownership, but anybody can access it (Feeny et al. 1990). Hardin (1968) argues that those communities with a culture of sharing resources definitely set in motion the forces that possibly cause the destruction of entire communities. In such a society people strive to gain the most from a particular natural resource called ‘a commons’ and when the supply is less than the demand, everyone taking an extra unit inflicts harm on others who cannot then utilise the resource any longer (Feeny et al., 1990). The theory of the tragedy of the commons according to Hardin, suggests that the commons eventually get depleted due to excessive use, denying the people a chance to use it (Feeny et al., 1990). In the case of the Indians in America, their land was not depleted as a result of too much use by the tribes. Instead the whites transferred its ownership to themselves, eventually denying all the Indian tribes access to it. The commons (land and associated resources) belonging to the Indians suffered threats from external forces such as corporate and governmental entities (Qian, 2003). There is absolutely no evidence of the self destruction of commons in among the Indian tribes. For example, the Indians relied on hunting buffalo for food in the western plains and there were many buffalo populations there when the white settlers arrived. Other natural resources on which the Indians relied for their survival were also still in place.  White hunters and U.S troops eradicated the buffaloes with the motive of destroying the Indians’ food sources. In the 19th century, buffalo numbers fell from about 40 million to below one thousand (Hacker & Haines, 2005).
Outside corporations, and not native tribes sliced mountain tops. In really sense, the commons was stolen from the Indians. All these forces come from outside the traditional custodians of the commons, and therefore, their interference with the resources is not directly in line with Hardin’s theory (Feeny et al., 1990).
However, from a different perspective, the commons was subjected to a tragedy. The fact that American whites took away the land for their own use, denying the Indians access to it could spelt a tragedy. They interfered with the ecosystems and habitats of wild animals, killed the buffaloes and generally disrupted the communal life and economic systems of the Indians, creating trouble for them (Hacker & Haines, 2005). The Indian economies from that perspective, suffered a tragedy because they were ruthlessly disrupted.
As already stated, the government wanted to use the Dawes Act to assimilate the Native Americans and expose them to civilization (Qian, 2003). This could be thought to mean that their motive of meddling in the affairs of the native tribes was good. They wanted to introduce them to an economic system of farming, which would have had better returns than their traditional hunting activities (Hacker & Haines, 2005).  Arguing from this point of view, the Native American economies were only set to undergo a transformation and not a tragedy. The whites wanted to change these economies into something better and not to destroy them completely, rendering them inaccessible for use to all as would be the case in Hardin’s theory. However, the thinking that because the whites interfered with the economies of the Native tribes can be interpreted as a tragedy of the commons does not fit in Hardin’s original explanation.


This paper has examined the issue of land among Native Americans, how they lost millions of acres of their tribal lands to white settlers, as well as the idea of the tragedy of the commons. Native Americans lost their lands in different circumstances. First, the struggles over land between the Indians and White Americans ended in favour of the whites because the balance of power was in favour of the whites. As white power grew, they established legal institutions and laws for the enforcement of land transactions. The Indians were also inferior in their technology because their weapons could not match the rifles and revolvers in the possession of the whites. The idea of assimilation for Native tribes initiated by the federal government made Indians landless because they resisted assimilation and yet they could not continue holding only allotted lands.
The Native American economies were not victims of the tragedy of the commons. Since the commons was not depleted and made useless through excessive utilisation, the theory does not apply. The economies were not destroyed through overuse and depletion, but they succumbed to external forces. They were disrupted by white people, who took away land and left the Indian tribes poor in the reservations. Therefore, this paper maintains the position that Native American economies were not subjected to the tragedy of the commons, because the tragedy that the commons suffered due to white people’s invasion was from outside and not from within.

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  1. Banner, S. 2007. How the Indians Lost Their Land: Law and Power on the Frontier Popular Collection. Belknap Press.
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  6. Merjian, A.H. 2011.An Unbroken Chain of Injustice: The Dawes Act, Native American Trusts and Cobell v. Salazar. Gonzaga Law Review, 46(3), pp. 610-657.
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