Ninety years ago
As has been true in every war ever fought by the United States, thousands and thousands of non-citizens took on the uniform of this country in the First World War and served with distinction.
Those who came here from Europe, from South America, from the far reaches of the globe often became citizens, their path to citizenship often smoother because of their military service. And their children — born here — were automatically citizens. And they served as examples for their countrymen.
But that wasn’t true for one group.
One group of soldiers couldn’t become citizenship ambassadors for their countrymen. Their countrymen couldn’t become citizens, and their children — even if born in the United States — weren’t citizens either.
Even though they were native Americans.
Or, to be precise, because they were Native Americans.
It wasn’t until 90 years ago yesterday — the 2nd of June 1924 — that every Native American was recognized as a citizen of the United States.
The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, also known as the Snyder Act, was sponsored by Rep. Homer Snyder of New York, and signed into law by President Calvin Coolidge. It read, in its entirety:
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That all noncitizen 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.1
It was thought to be necessary because of the way citizenship had been defined in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States…” The highlighted language had been interpreted as excluding many tribal members who were under the jurisdiction of their own tribes, recognized as separate nations on designated reservation lands.2
Before the law passed, roughly two-thirds of Native Americans had become citizens through other laws, including treaties, such as the 1867 Treaty with the Senecas and Shawnees and other tribes;3 specific statutes such as the act of 1921, giving citizenship to all Osage tribe members,4 and various allotment acts.
In particular, the allotment act of 1887 provided that:
every Indian born within the territorial limits of the United States to whom allotments shall have been made under the provisions of this act, or under any law or treaty, and every Indian born within the territorial limits of the United States who has voluntarily taken up, within said limits, his residence separate and apart from any tribe of Indians therein, and has adopted the habits of civilized life, is hereby declared to be a citizen of the United States, and is entitled to all the rights, privileges, and immunities of such citizens, whether said Indian has been or not, by birth or otherwise, a member of any tribe of Indians within the territorial limits of the United States without in any manner impairing or otherwise affecting the right of any such Indian to tribal or other property.5
Now you might think that, with an act giving citizenship to all Native Americans and the Fifteenth Amendment guaranteeing the “right of citizens of the United States to vote,” all Native Americans would have been able to vote in 1924.
In New Mexico, for example, the state Constitution provided that “Indians not taxed may not vote,” and it wasn’t until 1948 that a federal court finally ruled that the “Indians not taxed” provision was illegal under the federal Constitution.6 In Arizona, a suimilar provision was struck down that same year — in 1948.7
Ironically, both cases were brought by Native Americans who had fought for the United States in World War II … and had been unable to vote after they returned home.
- “An Act To authorize the Secretary of the Interior to issue certificates of citizenship to Indians,” 43 Stat. 253 (2 June 1924). ↩
- See “Indian Citizenship Act 1924,” History Timeline, Chickasaw History & Culture (http://www.chickasaw.tv/history : accessed 2 June 2014). ↩
- 15 Stat. 513 (23 Feb 1867). ↩
- “An Act To amend section 3 of the Act of Congress of June 28, 1906, entitled ‘An Act for the division of the lands and funds of the Osage Indians in Oklahoma, and for other purposes,’” 41 Stat. 1249 (3 Mar 1921. ↩
- “An act to provide for the allotment of lands in severalty to Indians on the various reservations, and to extend the protection of the laws of the United States and the Territories over the Indians, and for other purposes,” 24 Stat. 388 (8 Feb 1887. ↩
- See “Pueblo People Win the Right to Vote-1948,” New Mexico History (http://newmexicohistory.org/ : accessed 2 June 2014). ↩
- See Anne T. Denogean, “60 years ago in Arizona, Indians won right to vote,” Tucson Citizen, online, posted 25 Jul 2008 (http://tucsoncitizen.com/ : accessed 2 June 2014). ↩