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Guest Essay. One hundred years ago, on June 2, 1924, the United States government conferred citizenship on Native American people by passing the Snyder Act, also known as the Indian Citizenship Act. Prior to that time, Native Americans had been explicitly denied citizenship—first in the United States Constitution and, later, through the 14th Amendment. However, while the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 ensured that all Native Americans born within the United States had citizenship, the Act failed to fulfill the promise of citizenship because Native Americans were not also granted voting rights. It would be decades before all 50 states granted Native American citizens the right to vote. And even today, due to the inequities that Native Americans endure when accessing registration, early voting, and Election Day polling places, the promise of full citizenship remains broken.

While the 15th Amendment declared that the right to vote could not be denied on account of race, many states were able to find other ways to deny Native American people the vote—residence on a reservation, tribal enrollment status, taxation, and incompetency were all used by states as reasons to disenfranchise Native people. One tragic outcome was that thousands of Native American veterans— including American Indian Code Talkers returning from World War II— found themselves prohibited from participating in basic civil liberties in the nation that they had risked their lives to protect.

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

In reality, Native voting rights often have come about only because of extensive advocacy and litigation by Native American individuals, organizations, and Tribal Nations. Native voters have had to fight (sometimes repeatedly) to have their voices heard. So, on this 100th anniversary, we reflect on 100 years of Native American efforts to fully realize their citizenship and obtain equal access to their freedom to vote. We also honor 100 years of Native American citizens working tirelessly to make things better for future generations.

100 Years of Fighting for the Freedom to Vote

Native voters have had to fight for the enforcement of their civil rights since the moment that they were granted citizenship 100 years ago. To that end, since its founding in 1970, NARF has undertaken high-impact cases that will ensure equal and fair access to voting for Native American citizens. Repeatedly we have encountered voting rights abuses against Native Americans in Alaska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Arizona, New Mexico, and other states with significant Native American populations.

NARF’s legal work protecting Native voting rights is part of a long history of persistence across Indian Country to obtain and protect Native civil rights. Using the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, and various sections of the Voting Rights Act, Native American voters have filed dozens of lawsuits to gain access to elections and to have an equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice. A 2008 review of voting rights cases involving Native Americans and Alaska Natives as plaintiffs identified 74 cases, filed in 15 states. Tellingly, the Native plaintiffs won over 90% of cases- they lost only four of these cases, obtained partial success in two, and secured victories or successful settlements in the remaining 68 cases. That is an impressive record of success, often based upon dismal facts.

Why do Native people have to litigate for their right to vote? Because state governments repeatedly pass legislation to prevent Native American voter participation. State laws that directly restricted Native voter participation were on the books as recently as 1957. In more recent years, voting restrictions have expanded from direct denial of voting rights to the dilution of voting rights and indirect (but effective) impediments that capitalize on systemic inequities. Given their lack of representation, Native Americans continue to see gross disparities in services and infrastructure—things like transportation, broadband, and home addressing. These disparities can be exploited as barriers to registering to vote, voting, and having votes counted.

Today, 100 years after the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act, Native people still are forced to litigate for their right to vote. Tragically, states continue passing legislation that prevents Native people from voting in federal and state elections. For example, in Montana, the state legislature passed the Montana Ballot Interference Prevention Act in 2018. The law restricted ballot collection, which is used heavily in isolated rural Native communities. The Assiniboine & Sioux Tribes of Fort Peck, Blackfeet Nation, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation, Crow Tribe, and Fort Belknap Indian Community, Western Native Voice, and Montana Native Vote challenged the law in court. In 2020, the court ruled in the case, Western Native Voice v. Stapleton, that blocking ballot collection was unconstitutional and does not serve the state due to the detrimental impacts on Native voters. Incredibly, mere months after that ruling, the Montana state legislature again restricted ballot collection. Tribes and Native get-out-the-vote organizations in Montana were forced to return to court yet again to protect the rights of Native voters from anti-Native election-related laws. The court found again that the voting restrictions were unconstitutional. However, it begs the question: how many times should Native voters have to go to court to protect their freedom to vote?

Meanwhile, in 2022, the Spirit Lake Tribe, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, and several voters filed a lawsuit challenging North Dakota’s state legislative map as unlawfully diluting the voting rights of Native Americans. The U.S. District Court for North Dakota determined that the districts in question were not legal under the Voting Rights Act and ordered a legal and fair map to be adopted. Rather than working to adopt a legal map and ensuring that all voters in North Dakota could be heard, the state’s Attorney General poured more resources into appealing the decision and is advancing legal theories challenging the right of Native litigants to be able to bring cases under the Voting Rights Act at all. That case’s appeal, and the radical attempt to block private plaintiffs from accessing the Voting Rights Act’s protections, is still under consideration in the higher courts.

 Obviously, these voting restrictions reflect persistent racism and bigotry, but there also is a pragmatic reason for disenfranchisement. A fully enfranchised Native electorate is powerful. In many parts of the United States, Native voters could change the outcome of elections. Native Americans are poised to sway local, state, and federal elections. They make up key voting blocks in states like Arizona, Alaska, Nevada, Montana, Michigan, and Wisconsin, to name a few. Voting restrictions that target these communities can greatly influence electoral outcomes.

 Democracy is Native

Ironically, despite not having full access to enfranchisement and the privileges of citizenship, Native Americans have contributed greatly to this nation’s democratic fabric. In fact, Native American cultures heavily influenced the development of early American democracy. Well before the founding of the United States, even before the arrival of the earliest European explorers and colonists, some of the region’s Indigenous Peoples had federalist systems of government. When the delegates of the United States’ 1787 Constitutional Convention met, many of them were well-familiar with federalism-in-action through their contacts with Indigenous governments. Famously, Benjamin Franklin cited the structure and strength of the Iroquois Confederacy as an organization the colonies could emulate as they formed their new union.

Democracy is Native and NARF is committed to protecting it. The obstacles faced by Native voters are unreasonable and unfair and rob them of their collective political power. The fundamental promise of American democracy, of Native American democracy, is that everyone can participate and effectuate change. One hundred years ago, Native American were promised citizenship and all the benefits thereof. We fight every day in courts and congress across the United States to hold governments accountable and honor that promise.

Learn more about ongoing efforts to assert and protect the Native vote at vote.narf.org.



Join us in observing 100 years of Native American 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," observing 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.