Greed Is Good

by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz


During the final phase of military conquest of the continent, surviving Indigenous refugees were deposited in Indian Territory, piled on top of each other in smaller and smaller reservations.

In 1883, the first of several conferences were held in Mohonk, New York, of a group of influential and wealthy advocates of the “manifest destiny” policy. These self-styled “friends of the Indians” developed a policy of assimilation soon formulated into an act of Congress written by one of their members, Senator Henry Dawes: the General Allotment Act of 1887. Arguing for allotment of collectively held Indigenous lands, Dawes said: “The defect of the [reservation] system was apparent. It is [socialist] Henry George’s system and under that there is no enterprise to make your home any better than that of your neighbors. There is no selfishness, which is at the bottom of civilization. Till this people will consent to give up their lands, and divide among their citizens so that each can own the land he cultivates they will not make much more progress.” Although allotment did not create the desired selfishness, it did reduce the overall Indigenous land base by half and furthered both Indigenous impoverishment and U.S. control.

In 1889, a part of Indian Territory the federal government called the Unassigned Lands, left over after allotment, was opened to settler homesteading, triggering the “Oklahoma Run.” Oil had been discovered in Indian Territory, but the Dawes Allotment Act could not be applied to the five Indigenous nations removed from the South, because their territories were not technically reservations, rather sovereign nations. In contradiction to the terms of the removal treaties, Congress passed the Curtis Act in 1898, which unilaterally deposed the sovereignty of those nations and mandated allotment of their lands. Indigenous territories were larger than the sum of 160-acre allotments, so the remaining land after distribution was declared surplus and opened to homesteading.

Allotment did not proceed in Indian Territory without fierce resistance. Cherokee traditionalist Redbird Smith rallied his brethren to revive the Keetoowah secret society. Besides direct action, they also sent lawyers to argue before Congress. When they were overridden, they formed a community in the Cookson Hills, refusing to participate in privatization. Similarly, the Muskogee Creeks resisted, led by Chitto Harjo, who was lovingly nicknamed Crazy Snake. He led in the founding of an alternate government, with its capital a settlement they called Hickory Ground. More than 5,000 Muskogees were involved. Captured and jailed, when freed, Harjo led his people into the woods and carried on the fight for another decade. He was shot by federal troops in 1912, but the legacy of the Crazy Snake resistance remains a strong force in eastern Oklahoma.

Muskogee historian Donald Fixico describes a contemporary enclave:

“There is a small Creek town in Oklahoma which lies within the Creek Nation. The name of this town is Thlopthlocco. Thlopthlocco is a small independent community which operates almost independently. They are not very much dependent on the federal government, nor are they dependent on the Creek Nation. So they’re kind of a renegade group.” [1]



In 1907, Indian Territory was dissolved and the state of Oklahoma entered the Union. Under the Dawes and Curtis Acts, privatization of Indigenous territories was imposed on half of all federal reservations, with a loss of three-fourths of the Indigenous land base that still existed after decades of army attacks and wanton land grabs. Allotment continued until 1934, when it was halted by the Indian Reorganization Act, but the land taken was never restored and its former owners were never compensated for their losses, leaving all the Indigenous people of Oklahoma (except the Osage Nation) without effective collective territories and many families with no land at all.[2]

The Hopi Nation resisted allotment with partial success. In 1894, they petitioned the federal government with a letter signed by every leader and chief of the Hopi villages:

To the Washington Chiefs:

During the last two years strangers have looked over our land with spy-glasses and made marks upon it, and we know but little of what it means. As we believe that you have no wish to disturb our Possessions we want to tell you something about this Hopi land.

None of us were asked that it should be measured into separate lots, and given to individuals for they would cause confusion.

The family, the dwelling house and the field are inseparable, because the woman is the heart of these, and they rest with her. Among us the family traces its kin from the mother, hence all its possessions are hers. The man builds the house but the woman is the
owner, because she repairs and preserves it; the man cultivates the field, but he renders its harvest into the woman’s keeping, because upon her it rests to prepare the food, and the surplus of stores for barter depends upon her thrift.

A man plants the fields of his wife, and the fields assigned to the children she bears, and informally he calls them his, although in fact they are not. Even of the field which he inherits from his mother, its harvests he may dispose of at will, but the field itself he may not. [3]

The petition continues, explaining the matriarchal communal society and why dividing it up for private ownership would be unthinkable. Washington authorities never replied and the government continued to carve up the lands, finally giving up because of Hopi resistance. In the heart of New Mexico, the 19 Indigenous city-states of the Pueblo Indians organized resistance under U.S. occupation using the legal system as a means of survival, as they had under Spanish colonialism and in their relationship with the republic of Mexico. In the decades after they had lost their autonomous political status under Mexico and were counted as former Mexican citizens under U.S. law, both Hispanos and Anglo squatters encroached upon the Pueblos’ ancestral lands. The only avenue for the Pueblos was to use the U.S. court of private land claims. The following report reflects their status in the eyes of the Anglo-American judiciary:

Occasionally the court room at Santa Fe would be enlivened by a squad of Indians who had journeyed thither from their distant Pueblos as witnesses for their grant. These delegations were usually headed by the governor of their tribe, who exhibited great pride in striding up to the witness stand and being sworn on the holy cross; wearing a badge on his breast, a broad red sash round his waist, and clad in a white shirt, the full tail of which hung about his Antarctic zone like the skirt of a ballet dancer, and underneath which depended his baggy white muslin trousers, a la Chinese washee-washee. The grave and imperturbable bow which the governor gave to the judges on the bench, in recognition of their equality with himself as official dignitaries, arrayed in that grotesque fashion, was enough to evoke a hilarious bray from a dead burro. [4]

Without redress for their collective land rights under the claims court, the Pueblos had no choice but to seek federal
Indian trust status. After they lost in their first attempt, finally in 1913 the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the earlier decision and declared the Pueblos wards of the federal government with protected trust status, stating: “They are essentially a simple, uninformed, inferior people.” [5]

At the beginning of the 20th century, sculptor James Earle Fraser unveiled the monumental and iconic sculpture The End of the Trail, which he had created exclusively for the triumphal 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, California. The image of the near naked, exhausted, dying Indian mounted on his equally exhausted horse proclaimed the final solution, the elimination of the Indigenous peoples of the continent. The following year, Ishi, the California Yani who had been held captive for five years by anthropologists who studied him, died and was proclaimed “the last Indian.” Dozens of other popular images of “the vanishing Indian” were displayed during this period. The film industry soon kicked in, and Indians were killed over and over on screens viewed by millions of children, including Indian girls and boys. With utter military triumph on the continent, the United States then set out to dominate the world, but the Indigenous peoples remained and persisted as the “American Century” proceeded.


1.  From New Directions in Indian Purpose, quoted in Nabokov, Native American Testimony, 421.

2.  See Chang, Color of the Land. For well-documented details on widespread corruption involved in using allotment to dispose of the lands of the Native nations and individual Indian allotment holders in Oklahoma, see Debo, And Still the Waters Run.

3.  From Deloria, Speaking of Indians, quoted in Nabokov, Native American Testimony, 249.

4.  Stone, “Report on the Court of Private Land Claims.”

5.  “United States v. Sandoval,” 28. See also Dunbar-Ortiz, Roots of Resistance, 114–18.

Published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 17, September 1, 2014Excerpted from An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (Beacon Press, 2014). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press. Roxanne  Dunbar-Ortiz will read from her new book Sunday, Sept. 14 at 2 p.m. at the Henry Zarrow Center for Art and Education, 124 E. M.B. Brady St. in Tulsa. The event, hosted by Booksmart Tulsa, is free and open to the public. More information at