When Kamala Harris accepted her place in history wearing a pristine white suit in tribute to suffragists, she proclaimed, “I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last.”
Many Americans were aware of vice president-elect’s victory election during the 100th anniversary year of the 19th Amendment prohibiting disenfranchisement on the basis of sex. They may have also heard that she joins in the history books Charles Curtis, an American Indian from Kansas who was vice president of the U.S. from 1929-1933.
Harris has much in common with Curtis. Both were lawyers and came to the vice presidency after serving in the Senate. They each had parents from different ethnic backgrounds. Curtis had a European American father and a mother who was a Kaw enrolled tribal citizen.
Americans may not know that Curtis’s strong support of women’s rights helped pave the way for Kamala Harris. Influenced by both his Native and white grandmothers, he advocated for the 19th Amendment, and it was he who first introduced the Equal Rights Amendment on the floor of the Senate in 1923.
Curtis considered women voters worthy constituents since Kansas passed suffrage legislation in 1912, one of nine western states to have done so by that year. But some women were not included in the expansion of voting rights. Debates from Curtis’s time show how race, sex and the right to vote have always been connected in American history.
Curtis was part of a cohort of lawmakers who were American Indian. He served with several Cherokee and Choctaw colleagues, including a progressive Democrat from Oklahoma, Sen. Robert Owen, also a supporter of women’s suffrage. Curtis’s election did not expand the small numbers of American Indians in the top echelons of government, in an era when few African Americans served in elected positions. After Curtis and Owen, it would be over six decades before Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell was elected from Colorado.
Curtis was a popular politician, first elected to Congress in 1892 as a Republican at a time when Populists dominated in Kansas. Even so, the speaker of the House, Thomas Reed, referred to him not by name, but as “Indian.” Reed nonetheless sought his advice and appointed him to committees. Curtis persevered. By the end of his long tenure in Congress, Curtis was one of the most powerful members of the Senate. When Henry Cabot Lodge died in 1924, Curtis was elected Senate majority leader.
As a member of the Committee on Indian Affairs, Curtis was positioned to be a spokesman for tribal sovereignty. His legacy speaks otherwise. Born in 1860, his Indian family had survived dispossession and economic collapse, and abandoning tribal culture was the only option the federal government offered Indians.
In fact, many American Indians were not citizens of the United States until the Snyder Act of 1924, and before then it was offered only to those who spoke English, attended a government boarding school, professed Christianity or, most importantly, owned an allotment of land. Curtis passed the test.
Curtis is remembered in Indian Country for the legislation that bears his name, the Curtis Act of 1898. Politicians hoped to break up the communal ownership of property in favor of individual allotments of land. In Minnesota, this was known as the Nelson Act and led to fraud and Ojibwe dispossession. When the Curtis Act extended allotment to the tribal nations in Oklahoma, it also led to opening Indian lands to settlers, and diminished tribal courts and governments. Eventually, it enabled Oklahoma to become a state.
Curtis wrote the original legislation, and in later years regretted that subsequent versions lost his original intent. It is a terrible irony that federal policies he helped create stripped Native nations of their lands and rights. American Indian history is rarely a tale of progress and freedom.
It would be interesting to know whether Curtis ever imagined himself breaking barriers with his election as Senate majority leader or vice president. Also, did success in American political life come at the expense of his Indian identity? Evidence suggests it did not. One reporter commented on the large Indian presence in his Washington office. Curtis was Kaw, and a modern American Indian man. Curtis’s interest in women’s suffrage also created awareness of the politics of the Kaw nation. In 1922, they elected a woman, Lucy Tayiah Eads, as their chief.
The 1928 presidential election in which Herbert Hoover and Curtis were elected was the first in which large numbers of American Indian men and women voted. It was a moment of possibility. American Indians could choose to cast their vote for an Indian candidate. Observers noted that in certain states “the Indian vote” might change the direction of politics. But precisely because of the potential power of these new voters, many states immediately moved to challenge the Indian right to vote. Passing laws like those in the Jim Crow South, literacy tests or poll taxes effectively disenfranchised large numbers of Indians.
Yankton Sioux suffragist and voting rights advocate Zitkála-Šá (Gertrude Bonnin) was outraged by the Arizona Supreme Court ruling in Porter v. Hall that Indians living on their reservation homelands in Arizona could not vote under the state constitution. She asserted “if our Vice President-elect Hon. Charles Curtis, an Indian, had lived as a member of a tribe on a reservation in Arizona he would be disenfranchised. He could not vote, much less run for the vice-presidency of the United States.”
Indeed, despite Curtis’s historic election, many Indians were disenfranchised. Porter v. Hall was overturned in 1948 after Indians in Arizona sued for the right to vote. Legal challenges by Indian veterans as well as the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and its amendments resulted in greater protections.
The culmination of those changes revitalized our democracy, through an expanded electorate and a new growth in the number of American Indian, African American, Latinx and Asian elected officials. Their ranks now include Harris. In several states, Native voters helped elect her.
Voter suppression is part of American Indian history, but so is the refusal of American Indians to tolerate discrimination on their own homeland.
Brenda J. Child is Northrop professor of American studies and American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota. Cathleen Cahill is associate professor of history at Penn State University and author of “Recasting the Vote: How Women of Color Transformed the Suffrage Movement.”