Today celebrates 90 years of the signing of the Indian Citizenship Act on June 2, 1924. The Act, signed into law by President Calvin Coolidge, granted full U.S. citizenship to America’s indigenous peoples, who were referred to as “Indians.”
By the act of June 2, 1924 (43 Stat. 253, ante, 420), Congress conferred citizenship upon all noncitizen Indians born within the territorial limits of the United States. The text of the act follows:
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That all noncitizen 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.
Before the Civil War, citizenship was often limited to Native Americans of one-half or less Indian blood. In the Reconstruction period, progressive Republicans in Congress sought to accelerate the granting of citizenship to friendly tribes, though state support for these measures was often limited. In 1888, most Native American women married to U.S. citizens were conferred with citizenship, and in 1919 Native American veterans of World War I were offered citizenship. In 1924, the Indian Citizenship Act, an all-inclusive act, was passed by Congress. The privileges of citizenship, however, were largely governed by state law, and the right to vote was often denied to Native Americans in the early 20th century.
The Act granted citizenship to about 125,000 of 300,000 indigenous people in the United States. Those indigenous people that were not included in citizenship numbers had already become citizens by other means; entering the armed forces, giving up tribal affiliations, and assimilating into mainstream American life were ways this was done (Peterson 121). Citizenship was granted in a piecemeal fashion before the Act, which was the first more inclusive method of granting Native American citizenship. The Act did not include citizens born before the effective date of the 1924 act, or outside of the United States as an indigenous person, however, and it was not until the Nationality Act of 1940 that all born on U.S. soil were citizens.
Even Native Americans who were granted citizenship rights under the 1924 Act, may not have had full citizenship and suffrage rights until 1948. According to a survey by the Department of Interior, seven states still refused to grant Indians voting rights in 1938. Discrepancies between federal and state control provided loopholes in the Act’s enforcement. States justified discrimination based on state statutes and constitutions. Three main arguments for Indian voting exclusion were Indian exemption from real estate taxes, maintenance of tribal affiliation and the notion that Indians were under guardianship, or lived on lands controlled by federal trusteeship (Peterson 121). By 1947 all states with large Indian populations, except Arizona and New Mexico, had extended voting rights to Native Americans who qualified under the 1924 Act. Finally, in 1948 these states withdrew their prohibition on Indian voting because of a judicial decision.