What happened 87 years ago today?

In Indian by Adrienne K.3 Comments

 (click to make it bigger, read more at Today’s Document)

American Indians were granted US citizenship. Ironic, right? The original peoples of this land were among the last to be granted citizenship (and along with it, voting rights). While the declaration was signed into law on June 2, 1924 by President Coolidge, most Natives were not given full suffrage until the late 1940’s, due to individual state laws.
The issue of US citizenship is actually one that still resonates in Indian communities today. American Indians have extremely high rates of military service (12,000 Natives served in WWI, before they were technically even citizens!), and many Natives are very proud to serve, protect, and be citizens of the United States. On the other side of the argument, some tribes believe that the automatic granting of US citizenship undermines tribal sovereignty. I have friends who actually refuse to vote in US elections because they see it as voting in an election of a foreign country.

This quote is all around the internet, but only attributed to “one Native American” (really? you couldn’t have recorded his or her name?), but I think that the message is clear:  

“United States citizenship was just another way of absorbing us and destroying our customs and our government. How could these Europeans come over and tell us we were citizens in our country? We had our own citizenship. By its [the Citizenship Act of 1924] provisions all Indians were automatically made United States citizens whether they wanted to be so or not. This was a violation of our sovereignty. Our citizenship was in our nations.”

I’m even struggling with the language a bit as I’m writing this post–words like “granted” and “given” are words that I always avoid when talking about Indian sovereignty. We weren’t “given” sovereignty or “rights”, it was just that our sovereignty and rights that we always had were finally recognized by the US. They didn’t “give” us anything.

So it’s weird to type that Indians were “granted” or “given” US citizenship–what does that really even mean? To me, it again puts power in the hands of the US and takes it away from Natives, like that Indians didn’t exist in the US until they were formally “granted” citizenship by a foreign power. But I can’t really think of a better way to word it.

So whether you believe that the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 was a good thing, a necessary thing, or a bad thing, take a moment to reflect on the fact that it was in the very recent past that American Indians weren’t even considered full citizens of the land that had been theirs since time immemorial. I still find it hard to wrap my head around–my Grandma was born in 1927, had she been born a few years earlier, she would not have been born a US citizen.

More info:

Indian Citizenship Act of 1924

Today’s Document: June 2

(Thanks @goodfox for the tip this morning!)
  • My grandparents were not born citizens of the U.S. and I often wonder if they were consulted on the matter. And they did not recognize the imaginary boundary that separates the U.S. and Canada and now separates our families by political boundaries too. So, I have my blue card and still have to get a passport to visit relatives across the straits to B.C. Eh!

  • I read this article to my parents at dinner last night. We all got a good laugh about being “given” the “rights” of citizenship. Whoopee, was my dad’s response.

  • Just thought I’d pipe in…

    Things went down similarly in Canada… except they took even longer. First Nations (or “Status Indians”) were the last ‘group’ ‘given’ (I see what you mean about struggling with the language) the right to vote in Canadian elections in 1960. 1960!!! My parents – who are both in their 40s – were born in the flippin’ 60s. And I also totally think it’s ironic since we are all the First Peoples. Ironic and absurd.