tagReviews & EssaysFrom "Savage" to Citizen

From "Savage" to Citizen


From "Savage" to Citizen: How Native Americans were Rewarded for Centuries of Struggle and Contribution

Because of the unprecedented patriotism of Native Americans during World War I, both overseas and at home, and because of a national citizenship campaign, Congress granted full citizenship to all non-citizen Native Americans within six years of the war's conclusion. Arthur C. Parker, a member of the Seneca tribe and the Indian Bureau's officer in charge of capturing Iroquois draft dodgers, later pointed to Native American patriotism as proof that all Native Americans were ready for full citizenship. Citizenship was first granted to all honorably discharged Native American veterans, in 1919, and then to Native Americans, as a whole, in 1924. Acts passed in 1887 and 1906 that contained citizenship clauses for Native Americans were meant to assimilate to American culture all Native Americans who became citizens. The Act of June 2, 1924, also known as the Indian Citizenship Act, however, was passed specifically for non-citizen Native Americans to become United States citizens and contained no provisions or clauses pertaining to assimilation. The assumptions by 1924 were that Native Americans had all been assimilated by the experiences of World War I and that any tribal culture and/or autonomy that remained were acceptable. It later became evident that cultural autonomy was all that the act guaranteed, addressing no specific rights because citizenship was assumed to guarantee all of the rights that other citizens possessed.

From the ratification of the Constitution to the passage of the Act of June 2, 1924, Native Americans have had ambiguous statuses that have varied over time, with no widespread calls for citizenship from Native Americans until World War I. Few gained American citizenship until the Indian General Allotment Act, or Dawes Act, of 1887 was passed. Because of the Dawes Act, close to two-thirds of Native Americans were United States citizens by the start of World War I, though determining who had citizenship was quite difficult.

Section 2, paragraph 3 of the U.S. Constitution allowed room for Native American citizenship before the passage of any future acts. In the wording, "excluding Indians not taxed," the founding fathers made clear that there must have been Native Americans who were taxed, making those individuals citizens because only citizens can be taxed. Section 8, paragraph 3 of the Constitution gives Congress the express right to regulate commerce with "foreign nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes." From this, it can be ascertained that Native American tribes were either domestic nations, meaning nations contained within the United States, or that they were not nations at all, but existing in some ambiguous realm between the status of states and nations. This was evident by the fact that they were treated as lesser nations, receiving only governmental representatives for negotiations, instead of the formal diplomatic delegations that were sent to foreign nations.

According to Article 6, clause 2 of the Constitution, treaties made by the federal government are the "supreme law of the land." Treaties with Native American tribes often reinforced the position of them being their own sovereign nations, thus making it "supreme law" that they were nations, not groups of American citizens. However, in the 1831 Supreme Court case Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, Chief Justice John Marshall stated that Native American tribes were "domestic dependent nations," lesser nations within the boundaries of the United States, beholden to the United States government for protection. They were lesser, or semi-sovereign, according to Marshall, specifically because they had never been given full written recognition of their sovereignty.

Despite Marshall's ruling, Native American tribes were not, in fact, nations. A nation possesses the power to govern itself completely, without interference or hindrance from without its borders. By Marshall's very definition of "domestic dependent nations," tribes did not possess the powers of a foreign nation to both rule un-infringed and bring suit against American states. Because of Native Americans being citizens of their individual, semi-sovereign nations, there was no need felt by politicians to make them citizens of the United States. Thus, Native Americans were subject to many United States laws due to them owing allegiance for their protection, while being citizens of inferior, semi-sovereign nations and not citizens of the superior United States. This is perfectly demonstrated by an 1862 Minnesota court case, in which three hundred nineteen Sioux men were convicted for attacking white settlers during a frontier war. Because the Sioux were not American citizens, they were given no legal representations or reasonable explanation for their arrests, trial, and convictions. Thirty-nine of the Sioux were executed. If the Sioux were truly their own nation, the United States did not have the right to convict that nation's citizens and condemn them to death, especially for crimes committed during a time of war.

Native Americans' legal status would become even more complicated soon thereafter. According to a rider on the Indian Appropriation Act of 1871, tribes were no longer to be considered sovereign nations. Native Americans were not yet citizens of the United States yet not citizens of their own sovereign nations, thus not citizens of any nation. Being now deemed to not be nations, they were stripped of their right to make any kind of treaty with the United States government. Senator Eugene Casserly of California, dissenting on the act, summed up what Chief Justice Marshall had stated forty years prior, that Native American tribes were something more independent than states and less independent than foreign nations. Just prior to the Indian Appropriation Act, the Fourteenth Amendment granted citizenship to anyone born within the United States, yet the Senate had to appoint a special judiciary committee to examine the language of the amendment to see if it applied to Native Americans. The committee concluded that the amendment inferred exclusion of Native Americans, though the only language to such effect was the repetition, from the Constitution, of the phrase, "excluding Indians not taxed."

In 1880, this conclusion was tested in the Supreme Court with the case United States v. Osborn. A Native American man fought to gain citizenship, which was denied. It was ruled that only a special act of the government could invest the status and rights of citizenship upon an individual, despite said person having given up tribal ways. A few years later, the ruling was challenged again. John Elk left his tribe and moved to Omaha, Nebraska, buying a home, paying taxes, and joining the state militia. Under Nebraska law, anyone seeking citizenship was allowed to vote within the state. John Elk, though attempting to gain citizenship and taking all of the steps that were believed necessary for it, was denied citizenship and even denied the right to vote.

The case, Elk v. Wilkins was another resounding no from the Supreme Court on the application of the Fourteenth Amendment to Native Americans. Justice John Harlan, however, dissented, stating that any Native Americans whom paid taxes were eligible for citizenship. A few short years later, the citizenship provision of the Dawes Act would explicitly contradict the rulings of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the two Supreme Court cases that upheld the committee's ruling.

The Dawes Act was, largely, just a re-issuance of a bill introduced two years earlier, the Coke Bill, except that the Dawes Act contained a provision that allowed Native Americans to become citizens. Anyone accepting allotted reservation lands or who left their reservation and "adopted the habits of civilized life" would gain citizenship, whether they wanted it or not. Citizenship was to be forced upon those that did not already have it. Congress was attempting to exchange white, American culture and values for those of tribal life, especially land ownership. This, in turn, would allow excess reservation lands to be sold to the very railroad companies which Native Americans were resisting. Native Americans would be made as white as could be, no matter how much they might protest. Tribal life, according to the Indian Rights Association (a group of businessmen that worked with the federal government toward full Native American assimilation) and Congress, only injured Native Americans, keeping them heathens.

It long seemed that Native Americans were higher in the American caste system than were African-Americans, evidenced when Booker T. Washington escorted a Native American boy to Washington D.C. on a Virginia ferryboat, and the boy was allowed to eat with white passengers, but Washington was not. However, African-Americans adopted many facets of white civilization, speaking one language and sharing a white-influenced culture. Native Americans, on the other hand, had long resisted white influences, retaining many unique languages and customs. It was hoped, by government officials, that land allotment and citizenship would change that, putting an end to Native American pride and independence. "Indian schools," such as the one in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, were instituted to teach the steps to civilization that citizenship acts would make complete. Native Americans began to be educated alongside African-Americans, but despite the latter having citizenship and the former not, such programs were cut in order to "elevate the red race to the level of the white race" and not degrade them to the level of African-Americans.

Overall, the United States government hoped to erase the culture and independence of Native Americans in order to make them "white." The problem was always that Native Americans were a people whose land had been invaded, with an alien culture forced upon them, something of which they wanted no part, seeing no advantage in it. The saddest truth remained that even though Native Americans, in many ways, faced a lesser system of racism than did African-Americans or recent European immigrants, the two latter groups had been or were being given citizenship. Society of American Indians spokesman Carlos Montezuma stated the predicament quite precisely in one of his speeches, saying that Native Americans would have been better off if they were all put on boats, taken to other countries, and then brought back to the United States as immigrants.

In 1906, Congress passed the Burke Act, which was almost identical to the Dawes Act, except that it made citizenship more difficult to obtain. Instead of gaining citizenship as soon as a land title was received, Native American land owners were to wait as much as twenty-five years for citizenship. In 1917, the Department of the Interior was authorized to decide individual cases and grant citizenship to anyone who had received a land allotment since the passing of the Burke Act. The plan for this measure was to allow competent, independent Native Americans to gain citizenship while preventing "incompetent" Native Americans from having it. This was resisted by many Native Americans, as owning full fee patents to their lands would require them to pay taxes on those lands, economically crippling them. It was well known on reservations that many Native Americans who had received such patents had been tricked into signing mortgages on their lands and then lost their lands when they could not pay the payments.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs chose not to deal with the matter of determining citizenship and turned the matter over to the military draft boards. Military draft boards determined citizenship statuses of Native American men based on the Competency Clause of the act, the clause now being read as providing citizenship grants to anyone that received a land patent after the act's passage. Draft board registrars often ruled inconsistently with one another on the issue, denying citizenship to some that met the same requirements as others that received citizenship.

Citizenship was determined on a case-by-case basis, dependent upon a person falling into one of four categories. 1) Anyone who received a land allotment patent or land allotment trust before May 8, 1906 was a citizen by virtue of the Dawes Act. 2) Anyone who received a land allotment patent or land allotment trust after May 8, 1906 was a citizen because of the competency clause of the Burke Act. 3) Anyone who was born in the territorial United States and had voluntarily lived apart from his or her people and "adopted the habits of civilized life" was a citizen. 4) Any child born to citizen parents was a citizen. Draft officials were told to declare any Native American whose status was difficult to determine a non-citizen and thus, ineligible for the draft.

By this point, nearly two-thirds of Native Americans were citizens. Those that were not citizens did not meet the requirements of the Dawes Act or Burke Act, being either resisters to the acts or descendants of resisters. Despite such resistance and the difficulty in determining citizenship status, many non-citizen Native Americans were either forced into service by the draft board registrars' lies or volunteered once it was approved for them to do so. Draft boards were told to remind any non-citizen Native Americans that they could waive their deferment and enlist. They were also to tell these men that they might not have to serve in the military if they were accepted, that only very fit men with no dependents would be taken.

So many non-citizen Native Americans enlisted that it far overshadowed the few who did not. Only two hundred twenty-eight men claimed deferments, but such a low number was not because so many wanted to fight. Many wanted to stay at home and were not informed that they could do so. George Pineux, a man who had a wife and five children, was not told that he could claim deferment because of being a non-citizen and still fought in the war. There was, however, often a language barrier that contributed to the lack of deferment claims and also to Native American men failing to comply fully with draft requirements. Many Native American men presented themselves before draft boards and were accepted but did not show up for training, and were labeled deserters. Because of this, the Indian Office realized that it needed efficient interpreters for the draft board.

During this time, the Commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Cato Sells, enacted a plan to both test the level of Native American assimilation (to see if Native Americans were collectively ready for citizenship) and to boost the war effort. Sells established "Competency Commissions," that granted land patents to thousands of Native Americans to see if they were competent enough to manage their own affairs. Sells sweepingly applied the status of "competent" to anyone who was less than one-half Native American or who had graduated from a government school.

Sells' plan for boosting the war effort called for strong encouragement of Native American men to fight in the war, boosting Native American agricultural output, and discontinuing federal guardianship over any Native Americans that proved themselves competent enough to stand on their own. The plan, Sells hoped for individual Native Americans, would "absorb him into the general population with the full rights and immunities of our American life." The official Bureau of Indian Affairs policy then became that service in the war would hasten assimilation of Native Americans, teaching them the lessons necessary for becoming citizens, allowing them association with whites, forcing them away from tribal life and into "civilization."

Sells' wartime plan worked just as well to boost war efforts at home as it did to boost enlistment. The Bureau of Indian Affairs employed Native American spokesmen to encourage tribal members to buy bonds, hoping that bond buying would not only help the war effort but further assimilation. Native Americans purchased over twenty-five million dollars' worth of "Liberty Bonds" and millions of dollars of war savings stamps during World War I,

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