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Sunday, June 2, 2024

100th Anniversary of the Indian Citizenship Act

Laura Gillespie at History Now:

On 2 June 1924 President Calvin Coolidge signed into law the Indian Citizenship Act, also known as the Snyder Act, granting citizenship to all Indigenous peoples in the United States. The Act stated:

That all non-citizen Indians born within the territorial limits of the United States 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.

This law made citizens of approximately 125,000 of the 300,000 Indigenous people in the country, with the remainder having secured US citizenship before this through other means, such as the Dawes Act or service in the First World War.

There was, however, much confusion over what US citizenship meant for members of Indigenous tribes. By granting citizenship but stating that it would not affect tribal rights, the Act essentially conferred a form of dual citizenship upon those who were members of a particular tribe or nation. Indigenous people occupied an ambiguous place in American society, neither wholly inside nor wholly outside its political, legal and cultural boundaries. Conferral of citizenship did not suddenly entitle Indigenous people to full civic rights as there were still restrictions on their lands, and it did not guarantee the right to vote: that decision was left up to each individual state, some of which, such as Arkansas and New Mexico, did not enact voting legislation until 1948. Peggy Flanagan, Minnesota’s 50th lieutenant governor and an enrolled member of the Ojibwe tribe, stated in 2023:

For far too long, Native people had no say in the government that dictated nearly every aspect of our lives, and gaining citizenship required giving up tribal citizenship and assimilating into American culture.

This confusing, quasi-citizenship did little to improve the condition of Native Americans in the early 20th century. While the granting of citizenship to marginalised groups would usually be seen as a progressive development, this was not the case for many Indigenous people. Some tribal members, such as archaeologist and historian Arthur Caswell Parker and physician and social reformer Charles Eastman, believed that the Act was an essential component in allowing Native Americans to integrate fully into US society. Many, however, viewed the Act as an attempted enforcement of collective naturalisation that sought to extinguish Indigenous sovereignty. Benjamin Caswell, President of the Chippewa Indians at the time, saw the conferral of US citizenship as a significant step on the path towards the eventual dissolution of Indigenous communities as meaningful political entities in the US.