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BURKE ACT (1906)

A question that had long plagued the U.S. government involved the citizenship status of American Indians. In 1887 Congress passed the General Allotment Act, or Dawes Severalty Act, which stated that Indians who received land allotments or voluntarily took up residence away from their tribes were to be given United States citizenship. This seems simple enough on the face of it, but the situation was further complicated because the allotments of land were to be held in trust on behalf of the Indians by the federal government for twenty-five years. Some courts held that an Indian gained citizenship at the end of the twenty-five-year trust period; others maintained that an Indian had citizenship as soon as an allotment was received.

However, the citizen-making language of the Dawes Act specifically exempted the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Seminole, and Creek Indians as well as five other tribes residing in the Indian Territory. The Dawes Act was amended in March 1901 to include them. The citizenship question was further resolved and somewhat clarified with the passage of the Burke Act of 1906 (although it, too, stated that its "provisions . . . shall not extend to any Indians in the Indian Territory").

The Burke Act pertained to Indians who took allotments. The law withheld citizenship until the end of the twenty-five year trust period or until the allottee received a fee patent from the secretary of the interior. It further stated that any Indian who had taken up residence apart from the tribe and who had "adopted the habits of civilized life" was declared a citizen and was entitled to all the rights, privileges, and immunities of citizenship.

Under this act the secretary of the interior was given great authority over individual Indians who had taken allotments. The secretary decided whether an Indian was competent enough to handle his own affairs before he could even receive an allotment, and the secretary alone determined who the legal heirs of a deceased allottee were. If he determined there were no legal heirs, the allotted land could then be sold.

The government, with this act, reacted in the typically paternalistic fashion of the times. The position was one of concern that if Indians with allotments were completely free of federal guardianship, unscrupulous persons would soon cheat them out of their lands. This legislation was also seen by many as an attempt by Congress to hasten the assimilation of American Indians into white culture.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: New Encyclopedia of the American West, ed. Howard Roberts Lamar (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998). Charles Kappler, Indian Affairs, Laws and Treaties, Vol. 3, Laws (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1913) [Text of Burke Act]. Francis Paul Prucha, The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians, Vol. 2 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984).

M. Kaye Tatro

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