When Alaska was purchased in 1867, there were several ways in which the United States government was attempting to assimilate Indian people into mainstream America in the Lower 48 states. ‘Assimilate’ meant giving up the Indian way of life and blend into the non-Indian society.
Boarding schools were the primary tool for assimilating Indian people. Many boarding schools were established throughout the county to educate Indian youth according to non-Indian standards. The Indian children were taken from their homes and kept away from their families for very long periods of time. The schools were primarily run by missionaries, and were often traumatic to Indian children who were forbidden to speak their Native languages and have anything to do with their Native ways. There were many documented cases of sexual, physical, and mental abuse occurring at these schools. Theearly schools in Alaska were primarily built in the villages, so Alaska Native children did not have to go away to school. However, the same principles such as not being able to speak Native languages and so forth were found in them. In later years some children were sent to missions, and some did go away to boarding schools.
In 1887, Congress passed the General Allotment Act, also known as the Dawes Act after its sponsor Senator Dawes from Massachusetts. The Act basically divided up Indian lands by allotting it to individual Indians for private ownership, and then declaring the ‘left over’ land as ‘surplus’ and selling it to non-Indians and using it for other purposes. By dividing reservations lands into privately owned parcels, Congress hoped to assimilate Indian people by forcing the deterioration of the communal life style tribes had, and imposing the value of the nuclear family and economic dependency strictly within the small household unit. Under this Act the Indian tribes lost some 90 million acres of land, an area the size of California. The Alaska Native Allotment Act of 1906 was much different from the General Allotment Act in that Alaska Natives did not have title to any lands at that point, so their land base was not divided and sold off. Instead it was a way that individual Alaska Natives received lands in the areas where they lived and used for subsistence.
Watch these videos from the Tribal Nations DVD
- General Allotment Act or Dawes Severalty Act of 1887 (PDF)
- Fifty Miles from Tomorrow: A Memoir of Alaska and the Real People by William L. Iggiagruk Hensley – a great explanation of assimilation through schools in Alaska.