The original peoples of the High Rockies, and Colorado more broadly, have a long and storied history that spans thousands of years and contains complex relationships with this region. This year, the Herald is featuring a series on Indigenous histories of the High Rockies.
In this series, the Herald aims to expand readers’ knowledge of Indigenous peoples who have lived in the High Rockies for millennia, including their legacy of displacement and inequitable treatment following contact with European settlers.
While the Indian Residential School system was growing, so too was the next blow against Indigenous land sovereignty in the form of the Dawes Act of 1887.
That year, Congress passed the Dawes Act, also known as the General Allotment Act, which allotted land in individual parcels to federally recognized Indigenous people on reservations.
The act worked towards several main goals: to abolish communally held Indigenous land in favor of private ownership, assimilate Indigenous people into Anglo society, phase out costly federal support systems and bring Indigenous lands and communities under the United States legal system.
The new legislation provided 160 acres of reservation land to each Indigenous head of a household and smaller tracts to single individuals and minors. Under this mechanism, parcels of what had been communally held land were transferred to individuals and families.
The land was to be held by the U.S. Government for the first 25 years, after which full title was given to Native owners, who were simultaneously granted U.S. citizenship and subject to the nation’s laws.
Once all claims to parcels had been made by Indigenous people, what remained of the land on reservations was deemed surplus and offered to settlers.
The effects of the Dawes Act took hold in Colorado in 1895, primarily affecting the Southern Ute Reservation as the only land still held under Indigenous ownership in the state.
As provided in the legislation, allotment in severalty was only allowed with the approval of tribal members, determined by a vote of a tribe’s males.
Southern Utes near Ignacio opted for allotments, while Weeminuche Utes decided against the allotment system. A split vote led to the division of the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes in Colorado, who, today, act as two separate bodies on two separate reservations.
More than 523,000 acres of Ute-held land were lost through the allotment process, while only 73,000 acres of what had been reservation land remained under Ute ownership.
What land did remain in Ute possession through allotments was often difficult to develop, and landowners deemed as “incompetent” were compelled to sell their allotments.
“For those Utes who held allotments, development often proved impossible, as the best water rights were already taken by whites upstream and farming equipment was unavailable or unaffordable,” reads a passage from a Colorado Encyclopedia entry detailing the effects of the Dawes Act on Colorado’s Indigenous people.
Once allotments on the Southern Ute reservation were complete, what remained of the unclaimed plots were opened to white settlers in the area eager to develop the land for agriculture. This transfer of Ute lands to non-indigenous settlers continued well into the twentieth century.
The Dawes Act, which resulted in the loss of tens of thousands of acres of Indigenous-held land, is roundly considered to be one of the most detrimental policies enacted against Native people in the United States, including Colorado’s oldest inhabitants.
The combined policies of displacement and assimilation carried out by the U.S. Government have had lasting, intergenerational impacts on Indigenous communities throughout the country. As this series concludes, the Herald will discuss some of these lasting impacts and how they have affected the original people of the High Rockies.