Native Americans Granted U.S. Citizenship by 1924 Bill
On June 2, 1924, President Calvin Coolidge signed the Indian Citizenship Act, granting U.S. citizenship to all Native Americans born in the United States. As with most things having to do with white society, the federal government, and Native Americans, the act was controversial. Supporters praised the brave fighting many Indians performed for the United States during World War I, and pointed out that by 1924 over two-thirds of all Native Americans had gained citizenship already. Opponents, however, saw citizenship as one more way to force assimilation upon the Indians and destroy their tribal identities.
Not many Native Americans or tribal leaders were consulted about the legislation or involved in its passage. The Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy was adamantly opposed to the act, and wrote Congress and President Coolidge to decline the citizenship it had not sought. Nevertheless, the act became law, immediately granting citizenship to approximately 125,000 Native Americans (in addition to the more than 200,000 who were already citizens).
The text of the act is short, yet contains an extremely important clause inserted at the end by interest groups concerned about protecting Indian lands and tribal rights:
“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.”
That final clause, “shall not in any manner impair or otherwise affect the right of any Indian to tribal or other property,” meant that Indians could have dual citizenship: becoming a citizen of the United States did not mean they had to give up their tribal affiliation. With this clause in place, U.S. citizenship could not be used to destroy tribal identity.
This copyrighted newspaper article about the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act was printed by the Morning Oregonian (Portland, Oregon) on June 7, 1924:
Coolidge Frees Indians
125,000 Get Citizenship under New Legislation
Full Rights Granted Every Native-Born Redman by Act Signed by President
The Oregonian News Bureau, Washington, D.C., June 6.—(Special.)—Abraham Lincoln emancipated the Negroes of the country who were held in bondage by certain white persons who unjustly felt themselves in a position of superiority, but it remained for Calvin Coolidge to set the Indians free.
“As a result of the signing of the Indian Citizenship Act by President Coolidge, every native born Indian in this country is made a citizen of the United States,” said Charles H. Burke, commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, today. “The number of Indians given citizenship by the new legislation is approximately 125,000. There are 200,000 Indians who have already been made citizens by various acts passed by Congress in the past. The law just signed by the president lets down the bars and includes every Indian born within the territorial limits of the United States.”
The bill providing citizenship for Indians as originally introduced and passed by the House of Representatives authorized the secretary of the interior in his discretion to issue certificates of citizenship to Indians who made application for them. It was amended in the Senate to grant citizenship outright to all non-citizen Indians and this amendment was finally adopted by the House. President Coolidge signed the legislation as amended.
This copyrighted newspaper article about the significance of Indian citizenship was printed by the Sunday Oregonian (Portland, Oregon) on June 15, 1924:
Indians as Citizens
The law admitting to citizenship all Indians born in the United States cuts with a knife a knot which has caused controversy between those who take two opposing views of the Indians. One insists that the only way to assimilate them is to cut them loose from their tribes, throw them on their own resources, and let them prove their fitness or unfitness for citizenship by requiring them to assume the responsibilities of the citizen—let them sink or swim according to their individual ability and character. The other party maintains that this would make them an easy prey to the cupidity of white men and to the vices which they learn from whites of the worst type; that tribal relations must continue so long as tribes hold property in common, and that until this property is divided among the individuals, the tribal relations cannot be broken and old customs and traditions will remain a bar to assimilation; that the process of training for personal responsibility must be slow and must continue.
Congress apparently has taken the former view, believing that holding of property in common is no bar to citizenship, though the government act as trustee for the owners. It may apply the theory that the best way to teach a boy to swim is to let him go into the water. It had educated the Indians and taught many of them farming. Let those who have in them the faculties of industry, thrift and judgment be turned loose to develop those faculties. Certainly many will fail, but so have many white men. Probably the quality of independence will develop faster under the new policy than under indefinite wardship, and a larger proportion will succeed. The ways of white men will be more quickly learned by Indians thrown into constant association with them, and Indians will sooner learn to guard themselves against the tricks some white men play.
The status of the tribal Indians as foreigners permanently living in the United States but not of them was anomalous and fraught with many difficulties. That they do not regard themselves as foreigners was proved by the many who volunteered for service in the world war and who fought valiantly. They regard themselves as Americans, and have no other country to give their allegiance. Then Uncle Sam’s trusteeship for their land should be no bar to citizenship. Estates of some white men are in the hands of trustees, but they have the right to vote. The same rule holds good for Indians, though policy may dictate that the trustee loosen his hold gradually.