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Charles Brent Curtis, first Native American Congressional member

Yesterday, January 25, was the birthday of Charles Brent Curtis, first Native American congressional representative, senator, and the first and only Native American Vice President. Born in 1860 in Kansas to a Kanza mother and a European American father, he was a registered member of the Kaw Nation and was also part Osage and Potawatomi.  He spent part of his childhood in the Kaw Nation, raised by his maternal Kanza grandmother, before he returned to Topeka in his teens. He worked at as many odd jobs as he could find to fund his way through high school, including working as a hack driver and a jockey, and was frequently called “Indian Charley” (Seitz, 144, and Unrau, 97).

When he was nineteen, Curtis made an agreement with a Topeka lawyer A.H. Case to work as the custodian for Case’s law firm offices. Curtis read the firm’s law books—Blackstone and Kent’s Commentaries on American Lawin his off time (Unrau, 96). With no formal legal schooling, he sat for the bar exam and was admitted to the Kansas Bar in June 1881. He joined Case’s firm and made criminal law his specialty (Unrau, 98). After three years of practice, he was encouraged to run for and won the position of Shawnee County’s District attorney, the start of his political career. He made a point of enforcing state prohibition law, and developed a reputation as a tough stickler, closing 88 saloons during his first year in office.

Hot weather cabinet, Vice President Curtis. National Photo Company Collection, photographer, July 11, 1929. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c31276

Curtis’ career took off from there—he was immensely popular, good at making speeches, shaking hands, and remembering constituents. Publications of the day extolled Curtis’ rise to prominence as a story of a man pulling himself up by his bootstraps. Indian Commissioner Charles H. Burke published a pamphlet about Curtis directed to Indian youth, holding up Curtis as an example of what goals Indians could accomplish with hard work (Unrau, 22). When the General Allotment Act on the allotment of Indian lands—also known as the Dawes Act— passed in February 1887, Curtis was already working ambitiously, “…determined to prove the truth of the assimilationists’ dream” (Unrau, 114). He was elected as a Republican representative to the 53rd Congress and served from March 4, 1893, until January 28, 1907, when he resigned to serve as a Senator for Kansas, having been designated to fill the seat after Joseph Burton’s resignation. He was famous for answering all letters from his constituents within a 24-hour period (Unrau, 109).

Curtis supported veterans’ benefits, high tariffs, women’s suffrage, and assimilation among other issues during his career. He did lose his Senate seat in 1912, but was reelected in 1914, and continued to serve until 1926. One of his positions was chair of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, where he authored the bill that he considered his greatest legislative achievement: the Curtis Act of 1898 (Unrau, 122). It was a modification of the Dawes Act that advanced Oklahoma’s push for statehood and further limited the sovereignty of the five largest Oklahoma nations (Cherokee, Choctaw, Muscogee, Chickasaw, Seminole).

Curtis was elected the majority leader of his party in 1924 and was Herbert Hoover’s running mate in the 1928 election. During the election, his Kaw ancestry wasn’t often mentioned. Hoover and Curtis were inaugurated on March 4, 1929, and they served until their term ended on March 3, 1933. He ran for re-election with Hoover, but Franklin D. Roosevelt won the election, and Curtis retired to his private law practice in D.C. He died of a heart attack at his sister’s home in D.C. on February 8, 1936, and was buried in Topeka.

Sources:

Unrau, William E. Mixed-Bloods and Tribal Dissolution: Charles Curtis and the Quest for Indian Identity (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1989).

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