Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Indian Problem

On 30 May 1934 James Irby Bailiff, my nephew's wife's first cousin three times removed, married Gevena May (Gazaway) Given. 

James Irby Bailiff (1903-1999) is the man in uniform
Courtesy of and provided by Mary Bailiff Crittendon
Geneva was a half-blooded Choctaw Indian and was born when the "civilized" Indian tribes were being enrolled by the Dawes Commission so they could be allotted land and assimilated as other immigrants did. Whites sympathetic to Native Americans couldn't understand why the country had absorbed over 5 million European immigrants but 250,000 Native Americans couldn't be assimilated.  Indian Commissioner, Merrill Gates, described the "problem:"
"We must make the Indian more intelligently selfish before we can make him unselfishly intelligent. We need to awaken in him wants. In his dull savagery he must be touched by the angel of discontent. Then he begins to look forward, to reach out. The desire for property of his own may become an intense educating force.  The wish for a home of his own awakens him to new efforts. Discontent with the teepee and the staving rations of the Indian camp in winter is needed to get the Indian out of the blanket and into trousers -- and trousers with a pocket in them, and a packet that aches to be filled with dollars!?
So Congress passed what became known as the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887. This Commission was responsible for negotiating agreements with the Five Civilized Tribes – the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole. The stated objective of the Dawes Act was to stimulate assimilation of Indians into American society. Individual ownership of land was seen as an essential step. The act also provided that the government would purchase Indian land "excess" to that needed for allotment and open it up for settlement by non-Indians.

A 1911 ad offering "allotted Indian land" for sale
Between 1898 and 1914 the Dawes commissioned surveyed the tribes. The enrollment cards are held at the National Archives and Records Commission. And that's how I found out Geneva May Gazaway was a Choctaw Indian. Despite intentions, the Dawes Act had a negative impact on Native Americans. It dramatically reduced the amount of land Native Americans owned and the acreage not allotted to tribal members was sold to white settlers.  In 1887 tribes owned approximately 138 million acres of land; by 1934 they held only 48 million acres.

Senator Dawes went to his grave thinking his legislation was the "Indian Magna Carta."