In 1887, the U.S. government imposed a new way of titling land. First Nations could no longer hold land communally, as a tribe. Individual members could hold single lots, but in order to register, they had to sign up on a government roll. Many people feared government persecution if their ethnicity was formally registered and refused to sign up for the program. Those who did register for a share usually ended up selling it to white settlers seeking farm land or oil wealth. Although this provided some badly-needed income for Indians, the loss of land further devastated tribes over subsequent generations.
The Dawes Commission was the government agency charged with enforcing this new allotment system, and in the subsequent two decades, they conducted a census of Native Americans. Dawes commissioners who thought someone “looked Black” did not list that person as having Indian lineage--not even those who named their Indian parent!--but those appearing to be Cherokee mixed with white were listed as Cherokee. The Dawes Commission erased many Black tribe members from the official U.S. rolls, though they had been full Cherokees for decades.