look, a serious post

June 2, 2009

On this day in 1924, President Calvin Coolidge signed the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, granting citizenship to Native Americans.

In honor of this auspicious occasion, let’s take a closer look at the act:

BE IT ENACTED by the Senate and house of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, 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.” Approved, June 2, 1924. June 2, 1924. [H. R. 6355.] [Public, No. 175.] SIXTY-EIGHTH CONGRESS. Sess. I. CHS. 233. 1924. See House Report No. 222, Certificates of Citizenship to Indians, 68th Congress, 1st Session, Feb. 22, 1924. Note: This statute has been codified in the United States Code at Title 8, Sec. 1401(a)(2).

For all its brevity, this particular piece of legislation raises a couple of interesting points for consideration. The first is the idea 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.” Unlike other efforts to assimilate Indians into mainstream American society, this particular law did not require that Native people give anything up to become citizens.

On to the second point. Why was this law even necessary? Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment, adopted in 1868, states 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.” The critical language here is subject to the jurisdiction thereof. In 1868, many tribal people were not even militarily subject to the U.S. government yet, let alone under legislative control, particularly on reservations. Hence, Native Americans were excluded from the provisions of this amendment and were not considered citizens.

So how did this act come about? Following the end of the so-called Indian Wars at the end of the 19th century, federal Indian policy took a turn away from military extermination and/or subjugation and towards cultural assimilation, by force if necessary. While there was enormous pressure from outside forces for Native people to become “Americans,” there was also pressure from inside tribal society. Younger Indians, in particular,  saw citizenship as the key to the advancement of Indian issues. They thought that participation in the legal and political structure of the dominant society would bring about the recognition and equality that they sought.

At the same time, many Indian men served for the United States during World War I, and unlike African Americans, they did not serve in segregated units. This experience spurred many of them to push for citizenship, and their service also made their claims more palatable to the outside world.

Not all Indians were enthusiastic about citizenship. Members of the older generation were more likely to be against it. Their primary concerns were holding onto tribal land and living without interference of any kind by the government. As a professor of mine once put it, “They didn’t want a piece of the pie; they wanted their own pie.”

Citizenship did not fix all of the challenges facing Native Americans. Several states still found ways to subvert or negate the voting rights of their Native constituents. In the 1950s, the government implemented the twin policies of termination and relocation, designed to end communal land holding and separate government and fully assimilate Indians into American urban life. Poverty, crime, and health problems persist on Native land. But these are problems for another post.

**Yes, I use “Indian” and “Native American” interchangeably, and I don’t want to get into some argument about the politics of language at the moment. I certainly think it’s important, but as I’ve rarely met an actual Native person who cared all that much about being called an Indian, I don’t worry too much about using it.

further reading:

Stephen E. Connell. The Return of the Native: American Indian Political Resurgence. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Vine Deloria, Jr., ed. American Indian Policy in the Twentieth Century. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985.

Frederick E. Hoxie. A Final Promise: The Campaign to Assimilate the Indians, 1880-1920. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001 [1984].


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