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From the Serial Set: Citizenship and Suffrage for Native Americans

Welcome to the final installment of suffrage stories from the Serial Set! Today, we will be looking at the history of Native American citizenship and how voting rights came into play.

Despite the ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870, Native Americans were not guaranteed citizenship, nor voting rights, under the United States government. Reports from the Bureau of Indian Affairs were documented in the United States Congressional Serial Set until 1849, when the Bureau was transferred to the Department of the Interior. To better understand the origins of Native American suffrage, citizenship laws can be tracked through the Statutes at Large.

Following the 1830 passage of the Indian Removal Act (An Act to provide for an exchange of lands with the Indians residing in any of the states or territories, and for their removal west of the river Mississippi) by the 21st Congress, the United States and Native American leadership continued to negotiate and ratify land treaties until 1871.

The Dawes Severalty Act (An act to provide for the allotment of lands in severalty to Indians on the various reservations, and to extend the protection of the laws of the United States and the Territories over the Indians, and for other purposes) was passed in 1887 by the 49th Congress. Any Native American reservations established by treaty or act of Congress came under presidential authority for subdivision and re-allotment, promising citizenship to Native Americans who received land allotments. The tribes excepted from this law were the Five Civilized Tribes, along with the “Osage, Miamies and Peorias, and Sacs and Foxes…the Seneca Nation…[and] that strip of territory in the State of Nebraska.”

The 1898 Curtis Act (An Act for the protection of the people of the Indian Territory, and for other purposes), passed by the 55th Congress, dismantled remaining Native American self-governance systems. This law voided the laws of tribal governments and abolished tribal courts, directing the Secretary of the Interior to appoint a Native American inspector to carry out United States government affairs instead.

The sixth section of the Dawes Severalty Act was amended by the 59th Congress in 1906. Known as the Burke Act, or the Forced Fee Patenting Act, this amendment withheld citizenship privileges to Native Americans until “the expiration of the [25-year] trust period and when the lands have been conveyed to the Indians by patent in fee.” After one of these two criteria was met, Native Americans who lived independently of tribal lands, “adopted the habits of civilized life,” and were approved by the Secretary of the Interior, were “hereby declared…citizen[s] of the United States…entitled to all the rights, privileges, and immunities of such citizens.”

In 1919, An Act Granting citizenship to certain Indians ultimately afforded “all the privileges pertaining” to United States citizenship and honorable discharge to “every American Indian who served in the Military or Naval Establishments of the United States during [World War I],” independent of individual tribal rights.

The Serial Set documents the development of bills through the editing process and includes interdepartmental correspondence that contribute to the legislative process. Then-Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane submitted his opinion as follows:

“In my judgment the controlling factor in granting citizenship to Indians should not be based upon their ownership of lands, tribal or in severalty, in trust or in fee, but upon the fact that they are real Americans, and are of right entitled to citizenship.” (H. Rpt. No. 144, 66th Cong., 1st Sess., at 4 (1919) reprinted in Serial Set vol. 7592.)

The Serial Set contains four volumes under the title “Indian affairs, laws and treaties.” Volume IV, “Laws,” is volume number 8849. It includes the full text of An Act To authorize the Secretary of the Interior to issue certificates of citizenship to Indians, also known as the Snyder Act (after New York Representative Homer P. Snyder) granted citizenship to “all non-citizen Indians born within the territorial limits of the Unites States.” An excerpt appears as follows:

Photograph of a page from S. Doc. 53, Serial Set vol. 8849, depicting the text of "An Act to authorize the Secretary of the Interior to issue certificates of citizenship to Indians."

S. Doc. 53, 70th Cong., 1st Sess., at 420 (1929) reprinted in Serial Set vol. 8849. Photo by Bailey DeSimone.

While United States citizenship included the right to vote in elections, disenfranchisement practices continued. According to a Senate document from 1929, Native American citizens “may be denied the privilege of voting if they fail to comply with the requirements of the law as to registration, payment of poll tax, or do not meet the educational or other qualifications for electors, etc., as provided by the State laws.” (S. Doc. 53, 70th Cong., 1st Sess., at 1165 (1929) reprinted in Serial Set vol. 8849.)

While researching further, I discovered a 1906 Senate document entitled “Proposed State of Sequoyah.” Senator Joseph B. Foraker of Ohio submitted a draft constitution for Sequoyah, a proposed state for a majority Native American population, to be located in the Oklahoma territory.

The Serial Set also contains a copy of the map of the proposed state of Sequoyah:

Article VI outlines voting rights. Apart from persons living with mental health issues, “paupers,” persons employed by the Army or Navy, and convicted felons, elections were to “be free, equal, and by secret ballot.” (59) Although the 19th Amendment had not yet been ratified, Article VI included a promise to “enact laws to extend the right of suffrage to women of rightful age, and otherwise qualified according to the provisions of this article.” (S. Doc. 143, 59th Cong., 1st Sess., at 59 (1906) reprinted in Serial Set vol. 4912.)

Photo of page from Doc. 143, Serial Set vol. 4912, detailing "Article VI. - Suffrage and Elections" of the proposed State of Sequoyah Constitution.

Doc. 143, 59th Cong., 1st Sess., at 59 (1906) reprinted in Serial Set vol. 4912. Photo by Bailey DeSimone.

Researching Native American suffrage history uncovered the pre-history of Sequoyah. While the proposal did not pass with congressional approval, the Serial Set preserves its origins, draft constitution, and proposed geography. The Serial Set is an important collection that gives rare and valuable context to this history of United States law, regardless of whether bills or memorials (like that of the proposed state of Sequoyah) become law.

Photo of page from Serial Set vol. 4912, Senate Document 143, showing the approval of the Senate, House, and Cherokee Nation in passage of the Snyder Act.

S. Doc. 143, 59th Cong., 1st Sess., at 46 (1906) reprinted in Serial Set vol. 4912. Photo by Bailey DeSimone.

Although the suffrage journey for Native Americans had begun, well over 40 years passed before every state complied with the Snyder Act and enfranchised Native Americans. The history of suffrage is vastly different for many groups of people, and it has been fascinating to research just a few of them.

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