Lesson Plan

Dawes Act

Library of Congress


In "Dawes Act" students will look at the differences between the Homestead Act and the Dawes Act. 

The Homesteaders, Immigrants, and American Indians unit is broken up into six lesson plans, taking 45-120 minutes to complete, targeting sixth through eighth grade students.  A class does not have to complete every lesson in the unit - each lesson comes with its own set of objectives and resources.  This is lesson 6 of the unit.


Guiding Question
What was the Dawes Act? 

Critical Content
Students will understand the requirements of American Indians to claim land under the Dawes Act

Student Objectives
Students will be able to

  • analyze primary sources documents; creating a Venn document to compare
  • discuss the purpose of the Dawes Act
  • discuss the affects of the Dawes Act on American Indians
  • discuss the benefits to the United States of the Dawes Act



The first people living on the prairie were the ancestors of the various American Indian Tribes. Through archeology, we can surmise that the plains have been inhabited for centuries by groups of people who lived in semi-permanent villages and depended on planting crops and hunting animals. Many of the ideas we associate with American Indians such as the travois, various ceremonies, tipis, earth lodges, and controlled bison hunts, come from these first prairie people.

Horses were brought to Mexico by the Spanish in the 1600s. With the migration of the horse from Mexico in the 1700s, the culture of the plains people changed to one that was more mobile. Before the horse, the cultures hunted and traveled in relatively small restricted areas. With the introduction of the horse into American Indian society, greater distances could be covered. The horse became a status symbol to the American Indian and individuals amassed vast herds of these animals.

The first known historic tribe in the plains area was the Pawnee who lived in earth lodges part of the year and in tipis during the summer and fall hunts. The earth lodge tribes such as the Arikara, Hidatsa, Mandan, Omaha, Oto, Ponca, Pawnee, Wichita, Winnebago, among others, planted crops such as corn, squash, and beans and stored their food in underground storage caches. Their semi-subterranean lodges held from 10 to 40 people. Several lodges were grouped together to form fortified villages. Smaller groups ventured out with tipis for the bison hunts, returning to the earth lodge for winter. 

Other tribes associated with the Great Plains. were the Lakota-Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapahos, Comanche, Kiowa, Crow, among others. They lived mainly in tipis, traveling through the Plains region. These groups were the great hunters of the Plains following the bison or "buffalo" and foraging for berries, roots, and other plants. They lived in extended family relationship groups, traveling to familiar places and encampments. Often, they traded and warred with the earth lodge dwellers. When the prairie was changed by the coming of Euro-Americans, the culture of the prairie tribes was dramatically affected. The prairie tribes were moved off their traditional homelands onto reservations by the United States government to make way for the ever increasing settlement. They were forced into a foreign lifestyle that was in opposition to their own.


Have students read the following quote.
Discuss what it means and what it says about the United States as a country.

"The mission of the United States is one of benevolent assimilation." --William McKinley

Use the following links to the Homestead Act and the Dawes Act.
Have students read and analyze each document.
They should create a Venn diagram that compares and contrasts the two documents.

Homestead Act, 1862http://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=true&doc=31&page=transcript

Dawes Act, 1887 http://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?doc=50&page=transcript

Teaching With Documents: Maps of Indian Territory, the Dawes Act, and Will Rogers’ Enrollment Case File:

The Reservation System: Native American Lands Sold under the Dawes Act

Have students answer the following questions about the Dawes Act:
What was the purpose of the Dawes Act?
What did the Dawes Act do?
How would it have affected American Indians?
How would this have been beneficial to the United States?

"The Indian may now become a free man; free from the thralldom of the tribe; free from the domination of the reservation system; free to enter into the body of our citizens. This bill may therefore be considered as the Magna Carta of the Indians of our country."
-Alice Fletcher

"The Dawes Act was a way to break up the whole tribal structure of Native American nations. Instead of saying you are a group of people, all of a sudden you are individual landowners ─ you are Americans. And so it was designed to break up community, to civilize people, make us farmers, and also break up our tribal structure."
-Charlotte Black Elk

"Alice explained... the land allotment... and her wish that the whole people would see the wisdom of the great change... At length one man stood up, a tall, broad-shouldered fellow... He said, 'We do not want our land cut up in little pieces...' A groan of assent ran along the dark line of Sphinxes... 'We must come together and decide whether we will have this law...' She told them that there is nothing for them to decide... The law must be obeyed."
-Jane Gay


Have students write a summary explaining how they think the Dawes Act should be remembered.
Was it successful or a failure?
Was it good or bad?


Students will assume the role of a United States Congressman and use the text of the Dawes Act, the following quotes and other sources to debate the necessity of the Dawes Act. Finally, they will vote on the passage of the bill.

Divide students into two groups. One group will be in support of the Dawes Act and one will oppose it. Give students time to do additional research and prepare arguments in defense of their positions. Assist students with incorporating the information they gather into their arguments.

Additional Resources

This lesson plan is part of a larger curriculum unit on Homesteaders, Immigrants, and American Indians for grades sixth through eighth. To view the entire curriculum or other individual lesson plans, please click the links below.

Homesteaders, Immigrants and American Indians (entire unit)

Lesson 1: Agriculture and Inventions
Lesson 2: Territorial Ranges
Lesson 3: Land Use
Lesson 4: American Indian Reservations
Lesson 5: Homestead Shelters
Lesson 6: Dawes Act