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CURTIS ACT (1898)

During the 1890s, as white settlers flooded into Oklahoma Territory, demands increased to join the lands of the Five Civilized Tribes (Indian Territory) with Oklahoma Territory and thus form a new state. In 1887 the Dawes Severalty Act (General Allotment Act) legislated the allotment of communal tribal lands into individually owned plots, indicating a major shift in federal government policy. To aid the drive toward Oklahoma statehood and the full assimilation of its Indian population, the U.S. Congress created the Dawes Commission in 1893. Another congressional law, enacted June 28, 1898, was sponsored by Charles Curtis, a mixed-blood Kansa Indian and senator from Kansas. With the passage of the Curtis Act, Congress took final control over affairs in Indian Territory.

The Curtis Act helped weaken and dissolve Indian Territory tribal governments by abolishing tribal courts and subjecting all persons in the territory to federal law. This meant that there could be no enforcement of tribal laws and that any tribal legislation passed after 1898 had to be approved by the president of the United States. Towns could be surveyed and incorporated under the act, and residents were permitted to vote. The establishment of public schools was also sanctioned.

Prior to 1896 each of the Five Civilized Tribes had exercised sole jurisdiction over its citizenship requirements, determining who was a tribal member and who was not. With the passage of the Curtis Act Congress authorized the Dawes Commission to prepare new citizenship rolls for each tribe. Sen. Henry L. Dawes of Massachusetts undertook the compilation of a census to be used as the basis for allotment of tribal lands to individual Indians. Enrollment of tribe members, and ensuing allotment, was done without tribal consent.

The Curtis Act dealt a blow to the governmental autonomy of the Five Tribes, but the act was merely the culmination of legislation designed to strip tribal governments of their authority and give it to Congress and/or the federal government. Ironically, Charles Curtis, himself of Indian blood, was responsible for the act that helped pave the way for the demise of the Indian nations and for the statehood of Oklahoma.

SEE ALSO: ALLOTMENT, AMERICAN INDIANS, DAWES COMMISSION.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Kent Carter, The Dawes Commission and the Allotment of the Five Civilized Tribes, 1893-1914 (Orem, Utah: Ancestry.com, 1999). Troy R. Johnson, ed., Contemporary Native American Political Issues (New York: AltaMira Press, 1999). David E. Wilkins, American Indian Politics (New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2002).

M. Kaye Tatro

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