Editor’s Pick

01 June 2019

THE FORMER UNITED STATES PRESIDENT Calvin Coolidge poses at the White House with Native American guests. On 2 June 1924, Coolidge signed into law the Indian Citizenship Act, under which “all non-citizen Indians born within the territorial limits of the United States” were declared US citizens, 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.” The new citizenship law, which was also known as the Snyder Act—after Homer P Snyder, the New York congressional representative who proposed it—provided citizenship to around a hundred and twenty-five thousand Native Americans.

Article One of the US constitution only considered tax-paying Native Americans citizens for the purpose of apportioning congressional seats. The US supreme court’s infamous Dred Scott decision, which ruled that African Americans could not be citizens, allowed Native Americans, “like the subjects of any foreign government,” to obtain citizenship through naturalisation. Even after the fourteenth amendment established birthright citizenship, in 1868, the judiciary committee of the senate ruled, two years later, that the amendment “had no effect whatever” on Native Americans. The supreme court upheld this principle in the 1884 Elk vs Wilkins case.

Over the years, some Native Americans obtained citizenship by paying taxes. Others did so by joining the military, marrying citizens or being allotted land as part of the government’s efforts to take over and parcel out communally held tribal land. The Snyder Act was, in part, an acknowledgement of the service of thousands of Native Americans during the First World War. However, it did not guarantee voting rights, which were controlled by state governments. It would not be until Utah passed the requisite legislation in 1957 that all states granted suffrage to Native Americans, who were finally accorded full political rights through the Indian Civil Rights Act, 1968.