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  • "Our Democracy and the American Indian":Citizenship, Sovereignty, and the Native Vote in the 1920s
  • Cathleen D. Cahill (bio)

Two key events in suffrage history parallel important moments in Native history. In 1890, national suffrage organizations reunited to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) during the pinnacle of federal assimilation policies that aimed to destroy the cultural and political structures of Indigenous nations and to assimilate them into the citizenry of the United States. The year 1920 fell amid what is often called the nadir of Native history, characterized by poverty, disease, massive land dispossession, and little to no political power, all of which were the direct result of federal policies. These concurrent developments are rarely discussed in tandem, but some Indigenous feminists engaged in debates over Indian citizenship and voting rights and were in conversation with mainstream suffragists.1 While the Nineteenth Amendment did not enfranchise the roughly one-third of all Native adults who were not US citizens in 1920, Indigenous feminists loudly and directly called upon newly enfranchised white women to address "the Indian situation as it is today" upon ratification.2

This essay focuses on two Native feminist intellectuals, Laura Cornelius Kellogg (Wisconsin Oneida) and Gertrude Bonnin/Zitkala-Ša (Yankton Dakota). These two women may have been eligible to vote in 1920—it is unclear if they were and unknown if they did—and they participated in suffrage debates.3 In their dialogues with white women, they offered a vision of US citizenship for American Indians that could be coterminous with sovereignty for Native nations. Indeed, their primary concern was the survival of their communities, and they saw US citizenship and suffrage as useful tools in support of that goal.

The question of Native citizenship in the United States is a complicated one. At the nation's founding, Indigenous people considered themselves members of their own nations. The federal government recognized their sovereignty in the Constitution and entered into treaties with Native nations until it discontinued the practice in 1871. The Cherokee cases of the 1830s defined them as "domestic dependent nations" with limited sovereignty rights. For a time, Native people who voluntarily separated from their nations were generally seen as US citizens, but in 1884 the Supreme Court ruled in Elk v. Wilkins that only an act of Congress could endow US citizenship on Indians.4 [End Page 41]

Most Americans also believed that tribal people would eventually disappear, either by dying out or assimilating into the US citizenry. After the Civil War, federal Indian policy increasingly emphasized the latter. Policymakers came to view treaties as delaying the inevitability of assimilation by maintaining tribal land bases and independent systems of governance. The federal government therefore worked to "break up tribal relations" by ending the signing of treaties, developing a system of boarding schools that removed Native children from their communities, outlawing tribal governments and many cultural practices, and pulverizing tribally held land through the General Allotment, or Dawes Act, of 1887. The tribes in Oklahoma, who had been exempt, had their tribal governments dismantled and the allotment process begun by the Curtis Act of 1898.5

The Dawes Act specifically addressed the question of Indigenous citizenship. It divided reservation land, allotting male heads of households 160 acres that were held in trust for 25 years. The government sold off any "excess" land. Allottees were legally considered wards of the government until officials determined that they had learned to manage their property as possessive individuals, whereupon they became citizens. Those citizens who may have wanted to vote were often still kept from doing so by state laws like Arizona's literacy requirement or Montana's law denying state residency to reservation residents. By the early twentieth century, trust periods began to expire, but policymakers were not convinced that Native people were ready for citizenship. Natives considered "full-blood" often had their wardship status extended, while "mixed-bloods" tended to be judged competent and granted citizenship.6 The result was a "great confusion in Indian Affairs" as to who was a citizen and who was a ward. In 1924, Congress finally conferred citizenship on all Native people whether they wanted it or not with the...


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pp. 41-51
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