Focus on Treaties for Native American Heritage Month
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Annuities

Annuities were payments of money and/or goods distributed to tribes annually for a specified number of years. Annuities were included in many treaties between tribes and the United States in exchange for land cessions. Many Native Americans came to depend on annuity distributions for survival as hunting grounds and other means of support diminished. The government often used the threat of withholding annuity payments to influence tribal behavior. Annuity payments continued after the government stopped negotiating treaties with Native peoples.

Annuities were included in many treaties, from the treaty of 1778 with the Delaware (Lenápe) through the end of the treaty period in 1871. The government had several reasons for including annuities in treaties. In the Report of Commissioner of Indian Affairs for November 1, 1875, Edward P. Smith stated, "The annuity in money or blankets, or bacon and beef, may have a tendency to draw the Indians within the reach of the Government, and prepare them for the beginning of a work of civilization, and also to render them disinclined to take up arms and go upon the war-path. But with any tribe a few years of this treatment is sufficient for the purpose, and after this end has been gained, a continuation of the feeding and clothing, without a reference to further improvement on the part of the Indians, is simply a waste of expenditure."

The distribution of annuities became one of the most important duties of agency personnel and was a complex process. Before distribution each year, the agent took a tribal census to calculate the amount of individual payments. The annuity goods were sent to the superintendent, who was responsible for them until signed payment vouchers were received from the tribe. The distribution was made by the superintendent, agent, and several witnesses to ensure accuracy and legitimacy.

The annuity system was faced with numerous problems, including inferior goods, transportation costs, and corruption. Reformers lobbied for the end of annuity payments, claiming that the annuities increased the dependence of Native peoples rather than aided their progress toward self-sufficiency.

Early annuities, in either cash or goods, were paid to the chiefs of a tribe. The chiefs then distributed the payment to the rest of the tribe according to their personal obligations and tribal customs. However, this did not result in the even distribution the government desired. In 1847, the federal government tried to diminish the power and influence of the chiefs by distributing annuity payments directly to heads of families.

Goods distributed in annuity payments included beef, flour, sugar, coffee, corn, pork, shoes, clothing, blankets, beads, mirrors, beds, plows, wagons, and other goods deemed necessary to propel Native peoples toward civilization. Individual portions of tribal annuities ranged from a few cents to more than $100. In many instances, cash annuities went directly to traders to pay for goods that had been bought on credit during the year.

The government often threatened to withhold annuity payments to influence the actions of Natives. The Trade and Intercourse Act of 1834 provided for the payment of depredation claims against a tribe from that tribe's annuity. Tribes could also lose their annuity payments if they returned to ceded land, fought with other tribes or white citizens, resisted allotment, or refused to send their children to school.

Tamara Levi


Further Reading
Priest, Loring Benson. Uncle Sam's Stepchildren: The Reformation of United States Indian Policy, 1865–1887. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1975; Prucha, Francis Paul. The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians. 2 vols. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984; Washburn, Wilcomb E. The American Indian and the United States: A Documentary History. New York: Random House, 1973.
 

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