Indian Citizenship Act: Granted Citizenship but Not Voting Rights

Black and white 1924 photo of U.S. President Calvin Coolidge with four Osage Indians in front of the White House
U.S. President Calvin Coolidge poses with four Osage Indians after signing the Indian Citizenship Act. Wikimedia Commons

The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, also known as the Snyder Act, granted full U.S. citizenship to Native Americans. While the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1868, had bestowed citizenship on all persons born in the United States—including formerly enslaved people—the amendment had been interpreted as not applying to Indigenous native people. Enacted partially in recognition of the Native Americans who had served in World War I, the act was signed into law by President Calvin Coolidge on June 2, 1924. Though the act granted Native Americans U.S. citizenship, it did not ensure them the right to vote.

Key Takeaways: Indian Citizenship Act

  • The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, signed into law by President Calvin Coolidge on June 2, 1924, granted U.S. citizenship to all Native American Indians.
  • The Fourteenth Amendment had been interpreted as not granting citizenship to Indigenous native people.
  • The Indian Citizenship Act was enacted partly as a tribute to American Indians who had fought in World War I.
  • While it granted Native Americans citizenship, it did not grant them the right to vote.

Historical Background

Ratified in 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment had declared that all persons “born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof” were American citizens. However, the “jurisdiction thereof” clause was interpreted to exclude most Native Americans. In 1870, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee declared “the 14th amendment to the Constitution has no effect whatever upon the status of the Indian tribes within the limits of the United States.”

By the late 1800s, about 8% of Native people had qualified for U.S. citizenship due to being “taxed,” serving in the military, marrying whites, or accepting land allotments offered by the Dawes Act. 

Enacted in 1887, the Dawes Act was intended to encourage Native Americans to abandon their Indian culture and “fit in” to mainstream American society. The act offered full citizenship to those Native Americans who agreed to leave their tribal lands to live on and farm free “allotments” of land. However, the Dawes Act had a negative effect on Native Americans on and off the reservations.

Native Americans who had not already done so by other means won the right to full citizenship in 1924 when President Calvin Coolidge signed the Indian Citizenship Act. While the stated purpose was to reward the thousands of Indians who had served in World War I, Congress and Coolidge hoped the act would break apart the remaining Native nations and force Native Americans to assimilate into white American society.

Before the Civil War, citizenship was often limited to Native Americans of 50% or less Indian blood. During the Reconstruction Era, progressive Republicans in Congress sought to advance the granting of citizenship to friendly tribes. Though state support for these measures was often limited, most Native American women married to U.S. citizens were granted citizenship in 1888, and in 1919, Native American veterans of World War I were offered citizenship. Despite the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act, privileges of citizenship remained largely governed by state law, and the right to vote was often denied to Native Americans in the early 20th century.

Debate

While some white citizen groups supported the Indian Citizenship Act, Native Americans themselves were divided on the issue. Those who supported it considered the Act a way to secure a long-standing political identity. Those who opposed it were concerned about losing their tribal sovereignty, citizenship, and traditional cultural identity. Many Native American leaders like Charles Santee, a Santee Sioux, were interested in Native American integration into the larger American society but adamant about preserving the Native American identity. Many were also hesitant to trust the government that had taken their land and discriminated so violently against them.

One of the most vocal Native American opponents, the Onondaga Nation of the Iroquois Confederacy, believed that supporting the Act amounted to “treason” because the United States Senate was forcing citizenship on all Native Americans without their consent. According to the Iroquois, the Act disregarded previous treaties, particularly the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua in which the Iroquois were recognized by the U.S. government as “separate and sovereign.” A sovereign state with its own institutions and populations that has a permanent population, territory, and government. It must also have the right and capacity to make treaties and other agreements with other states

On December 30, 1924, the Chiefs of the Onondaga sent a letter to President Calvin Coolidge, declaring:

“Therefore, be it resolved, that we, the Indians of the Onondaga Tribe of the Six Nations, duly depose and sternly protest the principal and object of the aforesaid Snyder Bill, … Wherefore, we the undersigned [counselling] Chiefs of the Onondaga Nation, recommend the abandonment and repeal of the Snyder Bill.”

Rather than Native Americans, two primarily white groups shaped the law. Progressive senators and activists, like the “Friends of the Indians,” and senators on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee were for the Act because they thought it would reduce corruption and inefficiency in the Department of Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The removal of the word "full" from "full citizenship" in the final text of the bill was used as a reason why some Native Americans were not immediately granted the right to vote after the enactment of the law.

Text of the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924

“BE IT ENACTED by the Senate and house of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That all non-citizen 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.”

Native American Voting Rights

For whatever reasons it was enacted, the Indian Citizenship Act did not grant Native people voting rights. Except for the Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments, which ensure African Americans and women respectively the right to vote in all states, the Constitution grants the states the power to determine voting rights and requirements.

At the time, many states opposed allowing Native people to vote in their states. As a result, Native Americans were forced to secure the right to vote by winning it in the individual state legislatures. Not until 1962 did New Mexico become the last state to guarantee voting rights for Native Americans. However, like Black voters, many Native Americans were still prevented from voting by poll taxes, literacy tests, and physical intimidation.

In 1915, the U.S. Supreme Court, in the case of Guinn v. United States, declared literacy tests unconstitutional and in 1965, the Voting Rights Act helped protect the voting rights of Native people in all states. However, the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder dismantled a key provision of the Voting Rights Act requiring states with a history of racial bias in voting to get the permission of the U.S. Department of Justice before enacting new voter qualification laws. Weeks before the 2018 midterm elections, the North Dakota Supreme Court upheld a voting requirement that may have prevented many of the state’s Native American residents from voting.

Native American Opposition to Citizenship

Not all Native people wanted U.S. citizenship. As members of their individual tribal nations, many worried that U.S. citizenship might endanger their tribal sovereignty and citizenship. Particularly outspoken against the act, leaders of the Onondaga Indian Nation felt that forcing U.S. citizenship on all Indians without their consent was “treason.” Others hesitated to trust a government that had taken their land by force, separated their families, and brutally discriminated against them. Others remained adamantly opposed to being assimilated into white American society at the cost of their culture and identity.

Tribal leaders who supported the act considered it a path to establishing a national political identity that would give their people a more influential voice in issues affecting them. Many Native Americans felt the government now had an obligation to protect them. They believed that, as U.S. citizens, the government would be required to protect them from white businessmen trying to steal their government-granted land.

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Longley, Robert. "Indian Citizenship Act: Granted Citizenship but Not Voting Rights." ThoughtCo, Jun. 10, 2022, thoughtco.com/indian-citizenship-act-4690867. Longley, Robert. (2022, June 10). Indian Citizenship Act: Granted Citizenship but Not Voting Rights. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/indian-citizenship-act-4690867 Longley, Robert. "Indian Citizenship Act: Granted Citizenship but Not Voting Rights." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/indian-citizenship-act-4690867 (accessed September 30, 2022).