The Journey to American Indian Citizenship

The Journey to American Indian Citizenship

Rachel Folan, December 2016

In 1924, the American government attempted to clarify who American Indians were under U.S. law and what rights should be given to them. American Indians were officially granted citizenship, whether they wanted it or not, under the American Indian Citizenship Act, even though two-thirds had already become citizens [1]. However, one of the most basic American rights, the right to vote, had its own set of barriers and restrictions for these “newly” deemed citizens. It took years to establish equal rights and opportunities to American Indians and for them to be able to participate in the political spheres of America.

Throughout history, Native Americans have faced discrimination from vote denial to restrictions on political participation similar to those used to disenfranchise African Americans in the South. In 1861, an act of Congress that created the Dakota Territory, denied Indians suffrage by restrict-ing suffrage in the first legislative election to include only free white men [2]. In this Dakota Territory Act, Indians, who were organized into their own nations, were segregated in the eyes of the government and classified by their current American citizenship status, their intent to become a citizen or their lack of citizenship.

Before this act, Indians residing in the established Dakota territory and other Indian territories around the United States did not have to worry themselves with the status of their own citizenship because they believed that they had the same rights as their white counterparts. Those beliefs were quickly uprooted when the new law specified that those who were not citizens or those with no intention to become citizens were limited in terms of their ability to vote and hold office.

For years after this legislature was implemented, the right to suffrage and officeholding was severely restricted for non-white men [3]. Multiple laws were passed that perpetuated the discrimination against Native Indians and such discrimination was reinforced by the country’s own law makers. In the year 1866, Congress constituted the Civil Rights Act which granted citizenship and civil rights to “all persons born in the United States…excluding Indians not taxed”. This act sounded like an attempt to grant most Indians their citizenship and accompanying civil rights, but the act says that,

No person shall have the right to vote by reason off the passage of this act, except such persons as are declared to be citizens of the United States…[4].

In other words, this act did not intend to allow American Indians the right to vote, given that the majority of them were not citizens. This discouraged Indians and their trust in the American political system that they were ruled by. Having no voice led to many natives accepting this forced silence, even though it was wrong.

By the years 1868 and 1870, the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments had been added to the Constitution and these documents included the definition of a citizen and the right to vote was articulated on a national level.

Amendment XIV
Section 1. 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. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
Amendment XV
Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation. [5]

However, while these addressed citizenship and voting, they did not secure citizenship for American Indians. It was not until 1924 that the remaining one-third of non-citizens were recognized as citizens under the law. Dr. Joseph K. Dixon, an active proponent of assimilating the “vanishing race” into white society, wrote “The Indian, though a man without a country, the Indian who has suffered a thousand wrongs… Now, shall we not redeem ourselves by redeeming all the tribes?” [6]. This allowed them the right to vote and the explicit barriers against American Indians would slowly start to fade. [3]

Even without explicit laws preventing Indians from voting, states and their local jurisdictions could dilute the power of Indian voting by manipulating political geography. The way local governments were set up, made it more difficult for an Indian to vote and for that vote to hold weight in the final count [4]. Indian representation was diminished within the system even though, many times, Indians held a large number of the population.

Another problem that Indians faced and sometimes now face when it comes to voting are barriers similar to the previous vote denial, but these newer barriers incorporated intentional and in-creased difficulties in the voting process which, as desired, resulted in a reduction of voter turnout, participation and representation. Even where Indian people could vote, non-Indian governments used techniques to undercut Indian political participation [2]. The steps in the voting process that were affected the most were “registration, the securing of voter identification, and access to physical places and mechanisms for voting” [4].

Geography impeded each step of the voting process before these changes were made, so with these changes, registering in-person to vote could have been difficult depending on the distance to a voting station, especially for Native Americans living in rural communities [7]. In terms of geography and obtaining a voter identification, some Indians may not have been able to provide proof of residence because of living in tribal communities, rather than outside on organized streets and cities.

Language presents another barrier to Indian voters given that not all American Indian citizens are proficient in English or familiar with the language used in the voting process, whether it is registration or acting ballots [4]. The term “lost in translation” could be applicable in these situations given that many Indian languages do not always have direct word translations in English.

With the passing of the American Indian Citizenship Act, the Indians living here were granted concurrent or dual citizenship as members of their recognized tribes and as citizens of the United States. This presents challenges in the whole voting process because many states do not accept voter identification if it is of a tribe, which tests tribal sovereignty [7].

All of these barriers are evidence of the unjust treatment American Indians faced in the forming of our nation and the barriers that have extended into more recent history. A half of a century after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and a full one after the Indian Citizenship Act, Indians still face a host of “second generation barriers” to voting and representation. While the Voting Rights Act has made significant progress in protecting Indian voting rights, its limitations have become all the more obvious recently.

There have been many cases involving American Indians and their right to vote and this is some-thing we should not ignore [2], given that the problem has continued into current history and politics, our country and legislature should ensure that it will not happen again to any other group of people, including those of other races, ethnicities, or classes. The United States is supposed to be the land of the free with opportunities for its citizens that are unlike in other nations. Indians are a good example where America’s virtues seem to be forgotten. We must stay true to our historical foundation in being the land of the free and recognize that with that freedom, everyone has certain unalienable rights.


[1] Martin Jr, Waldo. E.,and and Patricia Sullivan “American Indian Citizenship Act of 1924.” In Civil Rights in the United States, edited. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2000. Opposing Viewpoints in Context. Accessed October 31, 2016.

[2] Schroedel, Jean and Ryan Hart. “Vote Dilution and Suppression in Indian Country.” Studies in American Political Development 29, no. 1 (04, 2015): 40-67.

[3] Bruyneel, Kevin, McCool, Olson, Daniel Robinson, Susan M, and L. Jennifer. “Native Vote: American Indians, the Voting Rights Act, and the Right to Vote.” Perspectives on Politics 7, no. 3 (2009): 664-665.

[4] “Securing indian voting rights.” Harvard Law Review 129, no. 6:1731-1754. Business Source Complete, EBSCOhost. Accessed October 31, 2016.

[5] “14th & 15th Amendment.” LII / Legal Information Institute. Accessed October 31, 2016. url

[6] “Native American Citizenship 1924 Indian Citizenship Act.” Nebraska Studies. Accessed November 10, 2016. url

[7] Adegbile, Debo P.. “The Most Fundamental Right : Contrasting Perspectives on the Voting Rights Act.” Bloomington, IN, US: Indiana University Press, 2012. Accessed October 31, 2016. ProQuest ebrary.

Further Reading

Fisher, Andrew H. “Speaking for the First Americans: Nipo strongheart and the campaign for American Indian citizenship.” Oregon Historical Quarterly, Winter 2013, 441. Expanded Academic ASAP.

Rudrappa, Sharmila. Ethnic Routes to Becoming American : Indian Immigrants and the Cultures of Citizenship. New Brunswick, US: Rutgers University Press, 2004. Accessed November 14, 2016. ProQuest ebrary.

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