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Indigenous Act helped complete the work of the 19th Amendment

ASU professor says voting inequalities for Native Americans still exist nearly a century after Congress granted them citizenship

Men in front of the White House
October 11, 2019

The 19th Amendment of the American Constitution officially gave women the right to vote in 1920, putting to rest decades of contention, civil disobedience and suffrage efforts.

However, many people don’t realize that not all women (and men) were on equal footing after its passage.

The Indian Citizen Act of 1924 gave Native American men and women full citizenship (and the right to vote). And nearly a century later, it’s still a struggle.

To commemorate the lead-up to the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment and to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day on Oct. 14, ASU Now turned to Katherine Osburn for elucidation.

Osburn, an associate professor in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, is an ethnohistorian whose research focuses on gender, race and political activism. Her current book project, "Sovereignty, Services, and Citizenship," focuses on the relationship between indigenous peoples and the state of Arizona. She said despite the good intentions behind the 1924 act, the legislation remains a work in progress.

Woman in blue dress

Katherine Osburn

Question: What was the Snyder Act, and how did it come to pass?

Answer: The Indian Citizenship Act granted full citizenship to all indigenous peoples living in the United States, but it is important to understand that a fair number of Native Americans had already become citizens before it passed. Throughout the 19th century, state officials occasionally granted their indigenous neighbors citizenship if the applicant appeared to be “civilized.”

Policymakers could debate what activities constituted civilized behavior, but the one constant in the decision to extend or withhold citizenship was tribal standing. Government administrators regarded Indians who lived on tribal lands as owing allegiance to an alien political system. This was one reason why Indians who accepted individual allotments of land under the 1887 policy of forced assimilation known as the Dawes Act received citizenship if they lived on their allotments for 25 years. Policymakers believed that living on these allotments severed tribal ties and assimilated Indians.

Moreover, by the 20th century Congress had extended citizenship to numerous indigenous persons through random provisions of individual acts of Congress and as a reward for military service. Yet many Indians still lacked citizenship until Congress granted (or imposed upon, depending on your point of view) citizenship to remaining American Indians. Support for Indian citizenship in Congress was no doubt bolstered by their military service in World War I, but the larger context of this act was rooted in a desire to assimilate indigenous peoples into the mainstream of American culture. After all, the Dawes Act was still in force. 

The text of the act reads:

"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."

In a legal sense, the second part of the act allowing citizen Indians to continue residing on tribal property undercut the long-standing idea that living in tribal communities was incompatible with citizenship. In a practical sense, however, state officials carrying out the machinations of citizenship still resisted extending full citizenship rights to their indigenous neighbors on reservations. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 had established the process for creating new states, and it allowed state officials to construct the stipulations for exercising the franchise. Thus, the Snyder Act extended the franchise in word, but not necessarily in deed. This meant that as late as 1938, seven states still disfranchised indigenous citizens. Arizona was one of those states.

Q: The irony of allowing indigenous peoples, who were here first and allowed to vote last, is not lost here. How galling it must have been for all Native peoples.

A: Leaving suffrage for the First Americans for last is indeed ironic, but it was that very matter of being First Nations that created that situation. Indigenous peoples are citizens of tribal polities that existed before the creation of the United States, and these polities hold a government-to-government relationship with the United States. Thus, their political status is unique, and that means that they are not just another minority group hoping for inclusion in the U.S. political order. For indigenous communities, protecting their sovereignty as tribal nations is the paramount political concern. Indeed, in the early 20th century, most indigenous communities were focused on immediate matters of survival under very difficult economic conditions. At the time the act was passed, a minority of Native Americans called for the franchise, and they did so more to improve the lives of their people through political engagement than from a desire to participate in American political institutions.

The most prominent advocates of citizenship and voting rights in the early 20th century were certain members of the Society of American Indians (SAI), a pan-Indian organization founded to lobby Congress and the Indian Service on behalf of Indian self-determination and to educate the public on Indian issues. The SAI was created on Columbus Day in 1911 by a group of highly educated Indian professionals (graduates of Indian boarding schools and American colleges) who had been working with sociologist Fayette Avery McKenzie of Ohio State University to improve Indian policy. One of the most prominent leaders was Dr. Carlos Montezuma (Wassaja), a Yavapai whose family resided in the Mazatzal Mountains.

In 1871, a Pima raiding party had kidnapped Wassaja and sold him to an Italian immigrant named Carlos Gentile. Gentile renamed him Carlos Montezuma and sent him to boarding schools and then to college. Montezuma took a medical degree from Chicago Medical College in 1889 and helped to found the SAI in 1911. In 1916, Montezuma started a journal titled Wassaja in which he expressed his criticisms of the way indigenous peoples were treated. When WWI broke out, he editorialized that, without citizenship and full civil rights, Indians should not be compelled to fight, especially since they were allegedly fighting for democracy, the benefits of which they were denied at home. This was a position held by a lot of indigenous peoples. Others felt that fighting would earn them citizenship. Still, citizenship in the United States for indigenous peoples is a dual citizenship and must be understood as such.

Although Montezuma sought civil rights for indigenous peoples, he also fought for Yavapai self-determination, helping to create their reservation at Fort McDowell in 1903 and supporting the resistance to relocating them to the Salt River Reservation in 1918 and 1919. He led efforts to win water rights for the reservation in the early 1920s. ... He represented a new way of thinking in the early 20th century that sought to use citizenship as a tool of indigenous self-determination. Voting must always be seen in that context.

Q: Why did it take longer for indigenous peoples to be fully franchised than for women?

A: The issues surrounding the 19th Amendment were very different than those of disfranchised indigenous peoples. Women’s voting rights were entangled with assumptions about gender, while Indian voting was linked to their unique political status. Moreover, simply passing the Indian Citizen Act did not fully franchise Indians. Since states set the parameters of voting rights, they were able to raise barriers to Indian voting.

While literacy tests and poll taxes were used against indigenous voters in many places, the primary impediments to voting were generally rooted in the unique political status of indigenous peoples as belonging to separate polities. Some states borrowed the language of the U.S. Constitution in Article 1, Section 2, which bars “Indians not taxed” from citizenship and used it to deny voting rights. Legislators in Idaho, Maine, Mississippi, New Mexico and Washington withheld the franchise from their indigenous citizens because those who were living on reservation lands did not pay property taxes. In New Mexico, Utah and Arizona, state officials argued that living on a reservation meant that Indians were not actually residents of the state, which prevented their political participation. These issues were at the forefront in Arizona when indigenous activists challenged their disfranchisement.

Article 7, Section 2, of the Arizona constitution stated, “No person under guardianship, non-compos mentis, or insane shall be qualified to vote in any election.” Arizona lawmakers understood this as prohibiting Indians from voting because they were allegedly under federal guardianship on their reservations. When two Pima men from the Gila River Reservation attempted to vote, the Pinal County recorder refused them. Tribal leaders mounted legal challenges that finally reached the Arizona Supreme Court. In Porter v. Hall (1928), the state argued that indigenous Arizonans were outside of the political boundaries of the state and that, following Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831), they were wards of the federal government. The court dismissed the first notion but fastened on the second. Arizona Indians lived within state political boundaries but, as long as they resided on reservations, they were under the guardianship of the federal government — as federal officials had maintained. Regardless of the provisions of the ICA, they would remain disfranchised until they assimilated and abandoned their tribal status. The Arizona Supreme Court eventually overturned Porter in Harrison v. Laveen (1948), on the grounds that the guardianship clause in the Arizona constitution violated the 14th and 15th amendments. Despite this victory, literacy requirements still disfranchised Arizona Indians until the 1965 Voting Rights Act banned them.

Q: Did the Indian Citizen Act end up making a difference? Did Native Americans end up becoming a big voting bloc?

A: Yes and no. No, because efforts to disfranchise indigenous Americans continued regardless of the law. Yes, because the Indian Citizen Act, paired with the 14th and 15th amendments, provided the foundation for legal challenges. Court victories against voting restrictions throughout the 1940s and 1950s helped more indigenous citizens to exercise their rights. In the 1950s, the Indian vote was significant in several Western states. In the 1956 election, both parties in Arizona issued a statement on their Indian policy, and in 1964 President Johnson's campaign made a point of reaching out to Indian voters.

More significant, however, was the Voting Rights Act, and the 1970 and 1975 amendments that strengthened the act. The Voting Rights Act outlawed any practices that “deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color” and established federal oversight of elections in areas where discrimination had historically been practiced. Apache, Coconino and Navajo counties came under scrutiny for disfranchising Native voters, and the literacy requirements were finally struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court under the provisions of the 1970 amendments. In 1975, Apache County attempted to gerrymander its voting districts to dilute the Navajo vote. Navajos challenged the action, and the case made its way to the District Court for Arizona. In Goodluck v. Apache County (1975), the court struck down the gerrymandering as unconstitutional. That same year, amendments to the Voting Rights Act ordered that language assistance be given to voters whose first language was not English. This provision increased voting on Navajo lands in San Juan County, Utah, by 95%. Indigenous voter rolls in Arizona have grown steadily ever since, and candidates for public office ignore their concerns at their peril.

Q: What is the situation today with Native American turnouts at the booths, and do they still face issues?

A: In recent years, indigenous voters played a significant role in Western states where their numbers are greatest. Janet Napolitano traced her victory in the 2002 Arizona governor’s race to the Native vote, and indigenous voters helped Al Gore carry New Mexico in 2000. The National Congress of American Indians created a national campaign of voter registration and education titled Native Vote in 2004. They encouraged tribes to hold their tribal elections on the same day as national elections, and places that followed this advice increased turnout significantly. On the Navajo Nation, Code Talkers (veterans who had used the Navajo language for security in wartime communications in WWII) traveled the reservation in 2004 urging their people to vote. In Phoenix, the Native American Community Organizing Project registered voters for the 2004 elections, and both Democrats and Republicans reached out to indigenous voters.

Ultimately, however, election officials across the nation have continued to suppress the Native American vote. Current challenges include refusal to accept tribal identification cards and residences — reservations often do not have traditional street addresses — for voter registration, scant language assistance, and inaccessible polling and registration sites. These problems led to a bipartisan investigation on indigenous voting rights in 2018 that resulted in the Native Voting Rights Act. The bill creates a Native American Voting Rights Task Force to provide funds and assistance to tribes for increasing voter participation and addresses problems with voter registration and polling sites. The bill provides funds for federal election observers and requires the Department of Justice to consult annually with tribes to make certain elections are flowing smoothly. It is stalled in the Senate, and its passage is not certain given the current political climate.

As always, however, indigenous peoples are not waiting on the federal government to deliver justice. Indigenous leaders all across the nation have organized to resist disfranchisement. Here at ASU, Patty Ferguson-Bohnee, director of the Indian Legal Clinic at the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law, founded Native Vote project in 2004. Third-year law students run the clinic, which provides both legal and practical assistance to Arizona’s indigenous voters. Most galling to some of the workers is the presence of nonindigenous poll workers disqualifying indigenous voters on indigenous lands. Native volunteers monitor 12 polling stations around the state to prevent such actions and provide legal assistance on the phone. Nearly a century after the Indian Citizen Act established American citizenship for indigenous peoples, its promises are still not fully realized, but indigenous activists and tribal leaders continue to demand the United States keep its word to America’s first peoples.

Top photo: President Calvin Coolidge posed with Native American men, possibly from the northwestern United States, near the south lawn of the White House on Feb. 18, 1925. It was taken after Coolidge signed the bill granting Native Americans full citizenship. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

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