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Decolonizing Education: Native Americans

This guide was originally created for the use of instructors and students in the reACT Decolonizing Education Experiential Learning Program funded by the 2022-2023 TLTC Curriculum Grants. Specifically: ARCH460; ARCH478; ARCH601; ARCH678; CHBE473; ENCH648


Beginning with the Indian Civilization Act of 1819, the United States enacted laws and implemented policies establishing and supporting Indian boarding schools across the Nation. From 1871 onward, federally run Indian boarding schools were used to culturally assimilate Native American children who were forcibly removed from their families and communities and relocated to distant residential facilities where their Native identities, languages, traditions, and beliefs were forcibly suppressed. The conditions in these schools were usually harsh, and sometimes abusive and deadly. Although these policies have ended, their effects and resulting trauma reverberate in Native American communities even today, creating specific challenges that merit Federal attention and response.

The Indian Appropriations Act is the name of several acts passed by the United States Congress. A considerable number of acts were passed under the same name throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, but the most notable landmark acts consist of the Appropriation Bill for Indian Affairs of 1851 and the 1871 Indian Appropriations Act.


The U.S. Congress passes the Indian Appropriations Act, creating the reservation system. The government forces Native peoples to move to and live on reservations, where it can better subdue them. Native peoples find themselves severely restricted in their ability to hunt, fish, and gather their traditional foods. For some tribes, the U.S. institutes food rations, introducing wheat flour, grease, and sugar into American Indian diets.


The U.S. ceases making treaties with tribes in 1871.  Congress passes a law ending the federal government’s practice of making treaties with Indian nations, nearly half of the treaties that the U.S. has negotiated with tribes have not been ratified by Congress. Of the ratified treaties, 24 promise some kind of health services to tribes. No longer was any group of Indians in the United States recognized as an independent nation by the federal government. Moreover, Congress directed that all Indians should be treated as individuals and legally designated "wards" of the federal government. Before this bill was enacted, the federal government signed treaties with different Native American tribes, committing the tribes to land cessions, in exchange for specific lands designated to Indians for exclusive indigenous use as well as annual payments in the form of cash, livestock, supplies, and services.

Indian Appropriations Act of 1885 ~ P.L. 48-341

The Indian Appropriations Act of 1885 granted the native tribes the right to negotiate the sale of unoccupied land created by the Treaty of 1866. This treaty forbade slavery within the reservation of the Choctaw & Chickasaw Nation, in addition to ceding the territory that would be considered unoccupied in present central Oklahoma to the U.S. Federal Government as punishment for the tribes’ involvement in the Civil War.

The Unassigned Lands in Oklahoma were in the center of the lands ceded to the United States by the Creek (Muskogee) and Seminole Indians following the Civil War and on which no other tribes had been settled. By 1883 it was bounded by the Cherokee Outlet on the north, several relocated Indian reservations on the east, the Chickasaw lands on the south, and the Cheyenne-Arapaho reserve on the west. The area amounted to 1,887,796.47 acres (2,950 sq mi; 7,640 km2).


The Dawes Act (sometimes called the Dawes Severalty Act or General Allotment Act), passed in 1887 under President Grover Cleveland, allowed the federal government to break up tribal lands and was aimed at transforming traditional uses and attitudes about land and land ownership to more mainstream American values of private ownership and settled farming. The federal government aimed to assimilate Native Americans into mainstream US society by encouraging them towards farming and agriculture, which meant dividing tribal lands into individual plots.  Only the Native Americans who accepted the division of tribal lands were allowed to become US citizens.

Some Native Americans did become farmers, convinced that assimilation into white society and a property deed were their only protection against those who would rob them of their lands. Others rejected the white man's world of markets, deeds, schools and Christianity. Encouraging resistance, they deemed the government's allotment strategy a conspiracy to destroy tribal culture and organization.

The Dawes Act had a devastating impact on Native American tribes. It decreased the land owned by Indians by more than half and opened even more land to white settlers and railroads. The result was the Land Rush of 1889.  Much of the reservation land wasn’t good farmland, and many Indians couldn’t afford the supplies needed to reap a harvest.