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Election... the American Way

Voting Rights for Native Americans

It's often overlooked that self-government in America was practiced by Native Americans long before the formation of the United States government. And yet, Native Americans faced centuries of struggle before acquiring full U.S. citizenship and legal protection of their voting rights.

[Carlisle Indian School, Carlisle, Pa. Class in Government]

Many government officials felt that Native Americans should be assimilated into America's mainstream culture before they became enfranchised. The Dawes Act of 1887 was passed to help spur assimilation. It provided for the dissolution of Native American tribes as legal entities and the distribution of tribal lands among individual members (capped at 160 acres per head of family, 80 acres per adult single person) with remaining lands declared "surplus" and offered to non-Indian homesteaders. Among other things, it established Indian schools where Native American children were instructed in not only reading and writing, but also the social and domestic customs of white America.

The Dawes Act had a disastrous effect on many tribes, destroying traditional culture and society as well as causing the loss of as much as two-thirds of tribal land. The failure of the Dawes Act led to change in U.S. policy toward Native Americans. The drive to assimilate gave way to a more hands-off policy of allowing Native Americans the choice of either enfranchisement or self-government.

"Move on!" Has the Native American no rights that the naturalized American is bound to respect? / / Th. Nast.

The Snyder Act of 1924 admitted Native Americans born in the U.S. to full U.S. citizenship. Though the Fifteenth Amendment, passed in 1870, granted all U.S. citizens the right to vote regardless of race, it wasn't until the Snyder Act that Native Americans could enjoy the rights granted by this amendment.

Even with the passing of this citizenship bill, Native Americans were still prevented from participating in elections because the Constitution left it up to the states to decide who has the right to vote. After the passage of the 1924 citizenship bill, it still took over forty years for all fifty states to allow Native Americans to vote. For example, Maine was one of the last states to comply with the Indian Citizenship Act, even though it had granted tax paying Native Americans the right to vote in its original 1819 state constitution. As reported by Henry Mitchell, a resident of that state, Native Americans were prevented from voting in Maine in the late 1930s.

...[T]he Indians aren't allowed to have a voice in state affairs because they aren't voters. .... Just why the Indians shouldn't vote is something I can't understand. One of the Indians went over to Old Town once to see some official in the city hall about voting. I don't know just what position that official had over there, but he said to the Indian, 'We don't want you people over here. You have your own elections over on the island, and if you want to vote, go over there.

President Calvin Coolidge & Four Osage Indians; White House, 1925

In 1948, the Arizona Supreme Court struck down a provision of its state constitution that kept Indians from voting. Other states eventually followed suit, concluding with New Mexico in 1962, the last state to enfranchise Native Americans.

Even with the lawful right to vote in every state, Native Americans suffered from the same mechanisms and strategies, such as poll taxes, literacy tests, fraud and intimidation, that kept African Americans from exercising that right. In 1965, with passage of the Voting Rights Act and subsequent legislation in 1970, 1975, and 1982, many other voting protections were reaffirmed and strengthened.