June 2, 1924 – Indian Citizenship Act & Native American Voting Rights

Until 1924, Native Americans were not considered to be citizens of the United States. Thus they could not vote. On this day in history however, President Calvin Coolidge signed into law the Indian Citizenship Act, declaring that “all non-citizen Indians born within the territorial limits of the United States be, and they are hereby, declared to be citizens of the United States: Provided that the granting of such citizenship shall not in any manner impair or otherwise affect the right of any Indian to tribal or other property.”

President Calvin Coolidge & Four Osage Indians; White House, 1925

In the infamous 1857 Dred Scott decision, Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney addressed the question of Indian citizenship, observing in his inimitable racist manner:

It is true that the course of events has brought the Indian tribes within the limits of the United States under subjection to the white race, and it has been found necessary, for their sake as well as our own, to regard them as in a state of pupilage, and to legislate to a certain extent over them and the territory they occupy. But they may, without doubt, like the subjects of any other foreign Government, be naturalized by the authority of Congress, and become citizens of a State, and of the United States, and if an individual should leave his nation or tribe and take up his abode among the white population, he would be entitled to all the rights and privileges which would belong to an emigrant from any other foreign people.”

But the passage of the 14th Amendment in 1868 obfuscated the issue. It provided that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” Did that include Native Americans? There was enough confusion about the issue that in 1870, the Senate Judiciary committee was asked to clarify the issue. The number of people affected was not insignificant: the estimated American Indian population in the 1870 census was larger the population of five states and 10 territories, with 92 percent of those American Indians ineligible to be citizens.

The committee found that it was clear, to it, that “the 14th amendment to the Constitution has no effect whatever upon the status of the Indian tribes within the limits of the United States,” but that “straggling Indians” were subject to the jurisdiction of the United States.

Part of the “problem” was that Native Americans were not classified as “taxed” and thus eligible for citizenship. [Article I of the Constitution provided that “Indians not taxed” couldn’t be counted in the voting population of states (while slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person).]

The exclusion of Native people from US citizenship was further established by Elk v. Wilkins, 112 U.S. 94 (1884), in which the Court held that a Native person born a citizen of a recognized tribal nation was not born an American citizen and did not become one simply by voluntarily leaving his tribe and settling among whites. The syllabus of the decision explained that a Native person “who has not been naturalized, or taxed, or recognized as a citizen either by the United States or by the state, is not a citizen of the United States within the meaning of the first section of the Fourteenth Article of Amendment of the Constitution.”

A number of measures were taken to “civilize” Native Americans, thus making the idea of their citizenship more amenable. On February 8, 1887, Congress passed the Dawes Act, named for its author, Senator Henry Dawes of Massachusetts. Also known as the General Allotment Act and signed into law by President Grover Cleveland, the law allowed for the President to break up reservation land, which was held in common by the members of a tribe, into small allotments to be parceled out to individuals. As the National Archives website concedes, the policy was intended to encourage the further destruction of Native patterns of living and thinking and engender socialization into the more “American” capitalist ways.

However, the Dawes Act was not successful. As the National Archives reports:

The purpose of the Dawes Act and the subsequent acts that extended its initial provisions was purportedly to protect Indian property rights, particularly during the land rushes of the 1890s, but in many instances the results were vastly different. The land allotted to the Indians included desert or near-desert lands unsuitable for farming. In addition, the techniques of self-sufficient farming were much different from their tribal way of life. Many Indians did not want to take up agriculture, and those who did want to farm could not afford the tools, animals, seed, and other supplies necessary to get started. There were also problems with inheritance. Often young children inherited allotments that they could not farm because they had been sent away to boarding schools. Multiple heirs also caused a problem; when several people inherited an allotment, the size of the holdings became too small for efficient farming.”

Prior to the Dawes Act, the Native practice of communal holding of property ensured that everyone had a home and a place in the tribe. The Dawes Act was considered to be “the culmination of American attempts to destroy tribes and their governments and to open Indian lands to settlement by non-Indians and to development by railroads.” (Clara Sue Kidwell, “Allotment,” Oklahoma Historical Society, online here.) Land owned by Indians decreased from 138 million acres in 1887 to 48 million acres in 1934.

The Indian Citizenship Act granted citizenship to about 125,000 of 300,000 indigenous people in the United States. The indigenous people who were not included in citizenship numbers had already become citizens by other means; entering the armed forces, giving up tribal affiliations, and assimilating into mainstream American life were some ways that was done. The Act also did not include citizens born before the effective date of the 1924 act. It was not until the Nationality Act of 1940 that all born on U.S. soil were deemed citizens.

As the Nebraska Studies Organization reports, the Indian Citizenship Act could be seen as a move by the federal government to absorb Indians further into the mainstream of American life: “No doubt Indian participation in World War I accelerated granting citizenship to all Indians, but it seems more likely to have been the logical extension and culmination of the assimilation policy.”

Moreover, even Native Americans who were granted citizenship rights under the 1924 Act did not necessarily achieve full citizenship and suffrage rights. As late as 1938, seven states still refused to let Indians go to the polls. (Helen L. Peterson, “American Indian Political Participation,” online here.) States relied on state constitutions and statutes to justify discrimination. Three main arguments for Indian voting exclusion were Indian exemption from real estate taxes; maintenance of tribal affiliation; and the notion that Indians were under guardianship, or lived on lands controlled by federal trusteeship.

As the Library of Congress reported:

In 1948, the Arizona Supreme Court struck down a provision of its state constitution that kept Indians from voting. Other states eventually followed suit, concluding with New Mexico in 1962, the last state to enfranchise Native Americans.

Even with the lawful right to vote in every state, Native Americans suffered from the same mechanisms and strategies, such as poll taxes, literacy tests, fraud and intimidation, that kept African Americans from exercising that right. In 1965, with passage of the Voting Rights Act and subsequent legislation in 1970, 1975, and 1982, many other voting protections were reaffirmed and strengthened.”

But the voting rights of American Indians and Alaska Natives have been further eroded or ignored since the United States Supreme Court overturned a key provision of the Voting Rights Act in 2013 in Shelby County v. Holder, 570 U.S. 2 (2013). According to charges in numerous lawsuits brought by tribes throughout Indian country in the battle to protect Native suffrage, there is now an even greater problem with unequal access to voting on reservations, and changes to voting laws and procedures that target Native Americans, intentionally or not.

Thus Native Americans once again find themselves disenfranchised in many areas. You can read more about current obstacles to Native American voting rights here, here, and here.

You can also see a map of new voting rights restrictions generally, here.

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