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The Dawes Act — injurious to Native Americans
Monday, November 22, 2010

The year 1895 in Pagosa Country began with a note of optimism.

The News proclaimed, “With the removal of the Utes and a railroad in Pagosa Springs, Archuleta County is on the high road to prosperity. For seven years the people have been waiting for congress to act on the question (the Ute question — the decision for the Utes to take lands in severalty thus opening the remainder of the reservation to non-Ute homesteaders), and at last their hopes are to be realized. This act alone will double the population of the county (about 1,000 persons in 1895) and town the day it is put into operation, and by many it is predicted that it will be trebled. The benefits to be derived indirectly from opening of the reservation are many. It will be a means of attracting capital and our many great resources will be developed. It will naturally bring a broad gauge railroad down the San Juan river, and in many ways add to the prosperity of our people. Archuleta county will in a short time become one of the most important counties in the state and Pagosa Springs will be one of the most attractive and prosperous town in the state.”

The Ute question related to implementation of the Dawes Act, passed by Congress in 1887. The purported intent of the Dawes Act was to encourage Indians to take homestead land in much the same manner as the white population. It was expected that the Indians would become self supporting through agricultural endeavors and as a result melt into the larger, dominant white society.

Tribes were not forced to accept the terms of the Dawes Act. A general election was held. In order for the Dawes Act to take effect, a majority of tribal members had to vote to accept it. The voting took some time to administer and evaluate, but ultimately, the Capote and Moache Southern Ute tribes in Ignacio agreed to take lands in severalty. In contrast the Weminuche band of Southern Utes living in Taowac refused the proposition. As a result, the Weminuche, sometimes referred to as the Mountain Utes, pretty much retain their tribal boundaries. South of Archuleta County in New Mexico, the Jicarilla Apache tribe also voted in favor of taking land in severalty.

Tribal land is owned in common by the whole tribe. Land in severalty meant that the participating tribal members would own title to their land the same way as people living outside of reservation boundaries.

Before implementation of the Dawes Act, the Southern Ute reservation was a strip of land stretching from the Utah border eastward approximately to the San Juan River at Pagosa Springs. In a north-south direction, that land extended fifteen miles northward from the New Mexico border into Colorado. Highway 160 from Pagosa Springs to Durango tends to stay a little north of that northern boundary line.

Few government acts have been more injurious to the Indians of North America than the Dawes Act. The reason is simple. In Ignacio and on reservations elsewhere, once eligible Indians received their homesteads, the remaining reservation land was opened for white settlement. More land was homesteaded by whites than by Indians. Excepting the Mountain Ute Reservation south of Cortez, just about all of the land owned by whites south of U.S. 160 had been owned by the Southern Utes as their reservation before Dawes Act implementation. As I said earlier, the Weminuche Utes refused the offer and retained their reservation boundaries.