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Celebrating the Centennial of American Indian Citizenship

American Indians were not granted citizenship by Congress until 1924. A prominent attorney discusses civil rights progress since then.

(AP Images)
Editor's Note: This article appears in Governing's Spring 2024 magazine. You can subscribe here.

For most of U.S. history, Native Americans weren’t second-class citizens. In fact, they weren’t even citizens. It wasn’t until June 2, 1924, when Calvin Coolidge signed the Snyder Act, that American Indians were granted U.S. citizenship.

The 14th Amendment of 1865 guaranteed birthright citizenship to native-born Americans, but somehow this was interpreted as not applying to Native Americans. The Dawes Act of 1887 (also known as the General Allotment Act) allowed American Indians to become citizens, but only when individuals registered and accepted the division of reservation land into privately owned lots. As a result of the law, Native Americans lost more than 90 million of the 150 million acres they’d previously controlled.

With the centennial of American Indian citizenship coming up, Governing spoke with John Echohawk, executive director of the Native American Rights Fund. Here are edited excerpts from that interview:

Governing: Why did Congress decide to grant citizenship in 1924?

Echohawk: In 1917, when World War I started, most Indians at that time were not citizens, they didn't have the allotments. But even then, an inordinate number of Native Americans signed up for military service and fought in World War I. A whole nation came to recognize that, wow, there are these Indians over there fighting for the United States of America, and they're not even citizens. That really kind of woke everybody up and eventually led to the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924.

Governing: What were some of the positive effects of that law?

Echohawk: That recognition led to further thought and discussion about Native Americans. There was a commission in 1928 that delved into what had been happening with Indian people, particularly since the Allotment Act, which was a bad law that didn't improve the status or social and economic conditions of Indians. That led in 1934 to President Roosevelt declaring the Indian New Deal and the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act, which basically stopped the allotment process and reinstituted tribal governments and the right of tribes to govern themselves.

That Indian Reorganization Act carried forward all these years because tribal governments have grown and prospered. Basically, we kind of run our own affairs these days.

Governing: Even after passage of the citizenship act, it still took decades for all states to grant Indians the right to vote. Can you comment on the struggle for Native American rights since then?

Echohawk: When the civil rights movement started in the ’60s, our Native American people got active and started demonstrating and demanding their rights — treaty rights, not the equal rights that Black people were advocating for, but our treaty rights because they were being totally ignored by U.S. government policy of termination and assimilation.

One of the biggest problems we had back in the ’60s was being the poorest of the poor. We didn't have any money for lawyers to bring forward these treaty rights cases and claims. All that changed in 1970, when Richard Nixon came to understand what the Indian rights movement was about, and he did away with the assimilation and termination policy. The presidential policy statement declared that the new federal policy was one of respect for Indian self-determination and recognized the sovereignty of Indian nations. And that's the way it's been now for 54 years.

Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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