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Guest Essay.  Although the U.S.A. is approaching its 250th year anniversary, it was only one hundred years ago that Native Americans were made American citizens.

In 1884, John Elk sued Charles Wilkins for preventing him from registering to vote, arguing:

. . . that more than one year prior to the grievances hereinafter complained of he had severed his tribal relation to the Indian tribes, and had fully and completely surrendered himself to the jurisdiction of the United States, and still so continues subject to the jurisdiction of the United States; and avers that, under and by virtue of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, he is a citizen of the United States, and entitled to the right and privilege of citizens of the United States.

The U.S. Supreme Court held that even though John Elk may have dis-affiliated with his tribe, because he had not voted, was not taxed and had never been recognized as a citizen of his state or the U.S., he could not be a citizen and therefore could not vote. The Court specifically found that neither the Fourteenth Amendment (1868) or the Fifteenth Amendment (1868) provided citizenship, nor the right to vote for John Elk.

[In commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, Native News Online will publish during the month of June guest essays to provide our readers with various perspectives from prominent Native Americans on the subject. Today's was written by Professor Victoria Sutton.]

During the debate around the 1866 Civil Rights Act, there was an awareness of the potential effect of this Act on Native Americans. Senator George H. Williams (Oregon-R) expressed his concern about the consequences of citizenship if granted to Native Americans. He noted that states would not be able to single out Native Americans for banning them from purchasing alcohol and firearms, like they did, if they had equal protection under the law. As Prof. Maltz observed, “This argument bears an almost eerie similarity to Taney's warnings against the dangers of black citizenship in Dred Scott.” (Dred Scott was the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that found enslaved persons were not citizens and therefore had no civil rights protections.

The Assimilation Period used Citizenship

The Dawes Act in 1887 forced Native Americans to take allotments and for that and disavowing their tribal citizenship, they received state citizenship. This was another U.S. Indian policy intended to break up Tribal Nations and assimilate Native Americans by forcing them into farming, while requiring the dissolution of their entire Tribal governments in some cases. (The residential schools program, 1819-1970 — another U.S. policy intended to destroy Native American Tribes, cultures, languages and family relations—got in the way of the other destructive allotment farming program and sending children away to residential schools. This meant no one was home who could carry on the farming demands of the U.S. government, but that is another story. Children did not “earn” citizenship by attending these indoctrination camps, either.)

It was thought that service in the military might help the cause of citizenship for Native Americans. More than 12,000 Native Americans served in the military during World War I, according to a former Baptist minister, Joseph Dixon, who documented their service in hopes of helping them toward citizenship. Despite the fact that many Native Americans fought in wars for America, they were denied citizenship, even serving in disproportionate numbers among all the racial categories in the U.S. for service in the military.

U.S. Citizenship for Native Americans without strings did not come until 1924

You might think that the Fifteenth Amendment ratified in 1870, that granted all U.S. citizens the right to vote regardless of race; as well as the Equal Protection of the Fourteenth Amendment would grant citizenship to the first residents of America, but Native Americans were still excluded.

So Native Americans had to be specifically granted the right of United States citizenship through legislation. It was not until June 2, 1924, that Native Americans received citizenship without the strings attached of disavowing their own tribal affiliations. Some may have been granted state citizenship as part of taking an allotment in the Allotment Act period.


The Act was passed December 1923 and signed by President Calvin Coolidge, June 2, 1924, authorizing the Secretary of the Interior to issue certificates of citizenship to Native Americans. This Act (also called the Snyder Act) did not distinguish between Indians who had left their tribes and those who remained with their tribes, so for the first time, Native Americans did not have to disavow their Tribal affiliations. However, voting law is a state area of regulation and many states continued to refuse to allow Native Americans to vote. New Mexico and Arizona still had laws that prohibited Native Americans from voting as late as 1948.

In 1948 the Arizona Supreme Court reversed Porter v. (1928) in a case, Harrison v. Laveen (1948) giving Native Americans the right to vote. Two weeks later, Miguel Trujillo, a citizen of the Pueblo of Isleta, and a World War II veteran, filed an action against the local county registrar. New Mexico’s court found for Trujillo, affirming the right to vote for Native Americans in New Mexico. The last western state to allow Native Americans to vote was Utah in 1957.

Some of you reading this will remember Native American people who became citizens in 1924, and many who said they did not want to be a citizen of the United States after the long history of genocide and abuses by the U.S. and refused the bestowal of citizenship.

Interestingly, Native Americans have served in the House and Senate of the U.S. Congress since 1893 to the present.

Voting Rights were still illusory

It was not until 1965 that all states were prohibited by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 from discriminating against voters. Tribes and individual Native Americans in the eastern United States had already lived through the literacy tests that tried to ban all “people of color” from voting. Even if they passed the literacy test they were still often banned from voting.

Even today, state voting laws often do not fit the structure of elections in Tribal governments. For example ballots are sent to P.O. Boxes on many Reservations because there are no street numbers and most people get their mail at a central location. This often is against state election law. But some states are passing state voting rights laws that accommodate the structure of Native American election processes.

Other citizenship issues in Indian Country

Some Tribal Nations are on the border of countries that only existed after these Tribal Nations had long been established. For example, the Tohono O’odham Nation on the U.S.-Mexico border region has some of its territory in Mexico and some of its territory as a reservation in the U.S. (Arizona). Traveling across that border for its tribal citizens still means they immigrate as citizens of another country, each time that move across that border on their own traditional lands. 

Citizenship has rights that Native Americans were denied for the first 150 years. So this year on June 2, 2024 a commemoration of the 100th anniversary of that decision to make Native Americans citizens has mixed messages. Many felt it was just another assimilation program just to force Native Americans away from their own Tribal governments and traditions and language. Some felt it was necessary to allow voting and to have some control over the laws and lawmakers that controlled their lives. Voting as a benefit of citizenship was a long and rocky journey from 1924 and the fact that states are passing Native American voting rights acts demonstrate that it is still a challenge to ensure that right of citizenship is fully available to all Americans.

To read more articles by Professor Sutton go to:  https://profvictoria.substack.com/ 

Professor Victoria Sutton (Lumbee) is a law professor on the facutly of Texas Tech University. In 2005, Sutton became a founding member of the National Congress of American Indians, Policy Advisory Board to the NCAI Policy Center, positioning the Native American community to act and lead on policy issues affecting Indigenous communities in the United States.

Join us in celebrating 100 years of Native citizenship. On June 2, 1924, President Calvin Coolidge signed the Indian Citizenship Act, granting Native Americans US citizenship, a pivotal moment in their quest for equality. This year marks its centennial, inspiring our special project, "Heritage Unbound: Native American Citizenship at 100," celebrating their journey with stories of resilience, struggle, and triumph. Your donations fuel initiatives like these, ensuring our coverage and projects honoring Native American heritage thrive. Your donations fuel initiatives like these, ensuring our coverage and projects honoring Native American heritage thrive.