The Homestead Act in Indian Country: Reconciling Land Loss and Tribal Sovereignty

Endorsed by SHGAPE

Thursday, April 20, 2023, 1:00 PM - 2:00 PM

Type: Pre-circulated Paper Presentation

Tags: Native Americans and Indigenous Peoples; Race; West


This panel, “The Homestead Act in Indian Country: Reconciling Land Loss and Tribal Sovereignty” challenges long held assumptions of the Homestead Act by decentering whiteness from the prevailing historical understandings of its enactment and implementation. Through an examination of American Indian, African American, and Alaska Native experiences, each of the four papers interrogates the legacies of land tenure and property ownership of white Americans by juxtaposing them with the ways Indigenous peoples and African Americans employed the Homestead Act to challenge colonial processes of dispossession and exclusion. The Homestead Act, signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on May 20, 1862, led to the transfer of 270 million acres of land from the “public domain,” across 30 states, to individuals hoping to claim land and with it, their birthright as American citizens. Though there were few requirements for individuals to access 160-acre parcels of land through the Homestead Act, they were expected to conform to specific ideas regarding Americanness that largely revolved around agrarian modes of private property ownership as the cornerstone of citizenship. In the years that followed the 1862 Homestead Act, additional versions of the act passed Congress, ensuring access to land for settlement for African Americans, American Indians, and Alaskans. With the basic tenants of the Homestead Act premised on agriculture and nationalism, land expropriation has become its historical legacy. It is no anomaly that the Homestead Act was passed in the midst of the Civil War and within weeks of the Morrill Act and the Pacific Railway Act. Rather, it was a modern day stimulus package; a carefully curated and timely effort to fulfill multiple aims of a young country in turmoil. While most scholars recognize the debilitating effects the Homestead Act had on tribal nations and American Indian communities who were fighting for their land, few have considered the nuanced ways Native people and African Americans engaged with the Homestead Act during its 124 years of existence. In this way, we reimagine and reframe the experiences of Native people and African Americans with the Homestead Act as they worked to navigate race, access to land, and property. The panel opens with papers by Kasey Keeler and Manu Karuka who provide critical historical context with a focus on Reconstruction, the 1866 Southern Homestead Act, the 1875 American Indian Homestead Act, the Dawes Act of 1887, and 1906 Osage Allotment Act. The final two papers, by Jimmy Sweet and Jessica Arnett, center the ways Native people collectively used the Homestead Act to access land across such broad geographies as South Dakota and Alaska, to establish communities and villages, resisting reservation confinement and challenging settler encroachment. Together, these four papers not only advance a new line of inquiry on the Homestead Act and Native people, they demonstrate an alternative narrative by which to understand how the legislative frameworks of expansion and dispossession actually played out on the ground in Indian Country.

Papers Presented

Homesteads and Allotments: Citizenship, Identity, and Land

The Homestead Act is widely accepted and recognized as pivotal legislation that opened millions of acres of land across the US, virtually for free, for white settlement. In doing so, the act established clear linkages between land ownership and access to US citizenship for decades and centuries to come. While the Act allowed citizens and immigrants who sought US citizenship, ages 21 and over, the opportunity to settle up to 160 acres of land, very few Native people had access to US citizenship, as citizenship was closely tied to American Indians’ degree of assimilation. In this paper I connect the Homestead Act of 1862, the Indian Homestead Act of 1875, and the Dawes Act of 1887 to underscore the racial underpinnings of these land policies that regulated and dictated who had access to land and property, through the language of citizenship, identity, and belonging. While American Indians had to prove they were “American enough” to keep or own land, (white) settlers where given land and the ability to claim “Americanness” simply by working the (Indian) land and building a home. To make clear the historical legacies of the Homestead Act and the Dawes Act, I turn to mapping. By visualizing the extent of the Homestead Act and the Dawes Act, we are able to recognize how nineteenth century policy shaped the contours of property ownership for today’s twenty-first century beneficiaries. In doing so, this paper engages both Kauanui’s “enduring Indigeneity” and Wolfe’s settler colonialism as “a structure, not an event.”

Presented By
Kasey Keeler, University of Wisconsin

Homestead, Reconstruction, and Trust

This paper examines the 1862 and 1866 Homestead Acts in relation to experiments in land redistribution during Reconstruction. The first Homestead Act facilitated the development of a large-scale land market, which in turn shaped the development of major financial institutions during the Civil War. The law contributed to the formation of a class of landholding investors in the Midwest, which struck an alliance with the Northern industrialist class to fund the war effort. During Reconstruction, Freedpeople's experiments in collective ownership and collective cultivation of land threatened this class and regional alliance. The betrayal of the process of Reconstruction, a betrayal which Du Bois identified as the "counter-revolution of property," involved a new alliance between Midwestern investors, Northern financiers, and Southern landlords. Drawing together distinct property interests in these three regions, this new alliance was stitched together by what Du Bois identified as the "wages of whiteness." Employing the coercive force of police and vigilantes, this alliance ensured its control over land, labor, and resources. I end the paper with an analysis of the 1906 Osage Allotment Act, which declared the Osage government to be illegitimate. In the ensuing decades, the coercive force underpinning the counter-revolution of property would turn violently towards capturing Osage oil wealth. The decades-long Osage struggle for renewed economic and political sovereignty occurred in the context of a transition in forms of land owning and land expropriation, a transition from individual homesteaders to corporate trusts.

Presented By
Manu Karuka, Barnard College

The Homestead Act and Indian Resistance: The Brown Earth and Flandreau Communities

After the passage of the Homestead Act in 1862, some American Indians took advantage of the act as a form of resistance to American colonialism and paternalistic federal Indian policies. This paper analyzes the Dakota communities of Flandreau and Brown Earth, both of which had their beginnings in families leaving their respective reservations to homestead on off-reservation lands. They sought to escape regimented life on the reservation, which was particularly difficult for Dakota people as American officials punished them for their role in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. Dakota homesteaders spoke of their wish to escape tyrannical Indian Agents and the paternalism of reservation life, as well as the authority of chiefs, seeking independence and a more stable life. Members of what became the Flandreau community had been forcibly removed from their homelands in Minnesota while those at Brown Earth had been refugees following the U.S.-Dakota War. Many saw homesteading as a way to guard against additional removals or to acquire agricultural land that was better than that available on the reservation. In addition, the requirements to “prove up” and meet requirements under the Homestead Act were much less stringent than requirements for land allotments under the 1867 Dakota treaty. For Indians, homesteading could be an effective strategy of resistance, but it carried risks. The Flandreau community persists today while the Brown Earth community, after years of poverty, lasted only about fifteen years before they were forced to return to Dakota reservations.

Presented By
Jimmy Sweet, Rutgers University

Challenging the Homestead Act in Alaska: Protecting Native Land Through Townsites and Allotments

In the 1890s, the federal government extended the Townsite Act and the Homestead Act to the district of Alaska, instigating disputes over land among Alaska Natives, miners, settlers, and resource developers. This paper analyzes the ways Native communities in Alaska’s interior used these acts to resist encroachment on and assert aboriginal title to their homelands. After purchasing the territory from Russia in 1867, the U.S. federal government never signed treaties with Alaska Natives and the courts determined that lands in Alaska were not Indian Country, therefore withholding a legal designation that recognized aboriginal title and tribal jurisdiction over Indian lands not ceded to the federal government. In response to increasing intrusion on their lands facilitated by the Townsite and Homestead Acts, Athabascan communities brought suit against two claims in the Alaska District Court, achieving a ruling that established an aboriginal claim to land that only the federal government could extinguish. Furthermore, they lobbied for the passage of legislation that would allow them to establish claims to village sites. Congress enacted the Alaska Native Allotment Act in 1906 and the Alaska Native Townsite Act in 1926. Alaska Native villages would use the Alaska Native Townsite Act to establish claims to their collective village sites, which because of their restricted status conferred tribal jurisdiction as “Indian Country.” Villages also used the Alaska Native Homestead Act to protect hunting and fishing lands located around villages, demonstrating the ways Alaska Natives understood these acts as important vehicles for establishing land rights and asserting sovereignty.

Presented By
Jessica Leslie Arnett, Oberlin College

Session Participants

Chair and Presenter: Kasey Keeler, University of Wisconsin
Kasey Keeler, an enrolled member of the Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians, is an Assistant Professor with a joint appointment in the Department of Civil Society & Community Studies and the American Indian Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin. Her first book project, to be published with the University of Minnesota Press, American Indians and the American Dream: Policies, Place, and Property in Minnesota, examines the entanglements of federal Indian policy and federal housing policy by centering Native peoples access to land, housing, and homeownership. Prior to joining the University of Wisconsin, she was the Native American Studies Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Virginia.

Presenter: Jessica Leslie Arnett, Oberlin College
Jessica Leslie Arnett is a Lecturer of Indigenous History at University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Their current book project, “Categories of Empire: Native Sovereignty and Settler Imperialism in Alaska,” analyzes the ways federal officials framed Alaska as geographically distinct, and Alaska Natives as racially and legally distinct from lands and Indigenous peoples of the contiguous states and territories. The book traces the ways these distinctions engendered and sustained new legal categories fundamental to understanding Indigenous-U.S. relations and U.S. imperialism in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Commentator: Steve Kantrowitz, University of Wisconsin-Madison
I am a historian of race, indigeneity, politics, and citizenship in the nineteenth-century United States. I am particularly interested in work that spans the antebellum, Civil War, and postbellum eras, and in the connections between the histories of slavery, emancipation, and Reconstruction and the dynamics of Native American life and U.S. conquest. I am currently at work on a project that explores the transformations of American citizenship in the Civil War era through a history of the Ho-Chunk people. Settlers, Citizens, and Civilization: The Hoocąk Confrontation with Colonialism, 1825-1881, will be published by the University of North Carolina Press.

Presenter: Manu Karuka, Barnard College
Manu Karuka is an assistant professor of American Studies at Barnard College. He is the author of Empire's Tracks: Indigenous Nations, Chinese Workers, and the Transcontinental Railroad (University of California Press, 2019). His current book project, Against Imperialism, reflects on what a genuine anti-imperialism would look like, from the vantage of North America.

Presenter: Jimmy Sweet, Rutgers University
Jimmy Sweet (Lakota/Dakota) is an Assistant Professor of American Studies at Rutgers University. His book project, “The ‘Mixed-Blood’ Moment: Race, Law, and Mixed-Ancestry Dakota Indians in the Nineteenth Century Midwest” analyzes the legal and racial complexities of American Indians of mixed Native American and European ancestry with a focus on kinship, family history, land dispossession, citizenship, and the Dakota language. Before joining the faculty at Rutgers, Sweet was a Henry Roe Cloud Postdoctoral Fellow at Yale University.