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Looking Back on the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act

IPR experts reflect on Native Americans’ U.S. citizenship and what it means 100 years later

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The Indian Citizenship Act, and then later the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) both set the stage for the meaning of what it means to be Indian for the next 100 years.”

Beth Redbird
IPR sociologist

 multiple images of President Calvin Coolidge and four Native American men

While Native Americans can trace their ancestry in what is now the United States back thousands of years, they were only granted U.S. citizenship in the last century through the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act.

June 2, 2024, will mark the 100th anniversary of the act’s passage. Two IPR faculty experts reflect on the passage of this historically and socially complex legislation—and what it means for the nearly 10 million Americans who claim Native American heritage today and those who hold dual citizenship in one of 574 federally recognized tribes and the U.S.

How Native Americans Became U.S. Citizens

Even though they were not required to register for the military draft due to their status, approximately 12,000 Native Americans still served in the U.S. military during WWI. 

“This is yet another occasion in which Native American people fight honorably for the United States,” historian and IPR associate Doug Kiel explained at a conference in January sponsored by Northwestern Pritzker School of Law and co-sponsored by the Center for Native American and Indigenous Research (CNAIR). “After returning from that war, the question of Native peoples’ status within the United States becomes especially more elevated.”

In 1884, the Supreme Court ruled in Elk v. Wilkins that Native Americans were not citizens by birth despite the 1868 adoption of the 14th Amendment granting citizenship to anyone born in the U.S.

While some Native Americans became U.S. citizens through legislation such as the Dawes Act of 1887, they had to divide reservation lands into individual plots in exchange for citizenship. Some states gave Native Americans citizenship if they assimilated and left their tribes or “de-tribalized.”

By the early 1900s, a group of Native Americans campaigned for citizenship for all Native Americans, Kiel says, through organizations like the Society of American Indians (SAI). The SAI was founded by activists such as Carlos Montezuma—the first Native American student to earn a degree from Northwestern University—and others who worked to shape Native American policy.

On June 2, 1924, President Calvin Coolidge signed the Indian Citizenship Act into law. It stated, “all noncitizen Indians born within the territorial limits of the United States be, and they are hereby, declared to be citizens of the United States.”

“One of the first things that Native individuals do who were granted citizenship is begin to work in the Bureau of Indian Affairs,” Kiel said. “That becomes one of the first expressions of Indigenous citizenship—to gain entry into the federal bureaucracy that coordinates Indigenous affairs.”

While the act gave Native Americans citizenship, IPR sociologist Beth Redbird says that it wasn’t out of generosity.

“They [the government] thought, generally, if they substituted U.S. citizenship for tribal citizenship, then they could terminate tribes,” she said. “By and large, it was not given out of goodwill, and tribes knew it.”

To this day, some tribes still refuse U.S. citizenship, Redbird said.

And, Kiel explains, the act did not immediately give Native Americans full rights as citizens, nor did it give Native Americans complete autonomy over their lives.

Jim Crow-style restrictions denied Native Americans the right to vote in several states for decades. They only fully received their right to vote after passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Even today, voting remains difficult for Native communities living on reservations because of the lack of voting resources and strict voter ID laws.

“Citizenship does not prevent Native children from being forcibly removed from their families by way of adoption,” Kiel said. “Citizenship does also not prevent the forced sterilization of Native women, a practice that continued up until the 1970s through the Indian Health Service.”

Redefining What It Means to Be Native American

Decades later, the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act would come to have a profound influence on the definition of Native American.

“The Indian Citizenship Act, and then later the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) both set the stage for the meaning of what it means to be Indian for the next 100 years,” Redbird said.

The 1924 Indian Citizenship Act and the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, Redbird explains, created the idea of blood quantum, a system the U.S. government imposed on tribes to determine whether someone had enough blood to be a tribal member. This, she says, has been used to tell people of Native descent that being Native American is a genetic inheritance you can grow out of—and if you do not have enough Native blood, “then you’re not real.”

“The Indian Citizenship Act—it works to define away your relationship to the tribe as a governmental entity,” Redbird explained. “It sets the stage for eventually defining your relationship away—if you don't have enough blood, if you speak the wrong language, [or] you're too light-skinned. All of these things will come to be definers of who is an Indian in the next decade.”

In 1934, the IRA acknowledged the right of Native Americans to form nations and write constitutions that defined tribal citizenship, but only with the Department of the Interior’s approval.

“We've been allowed to define [tribal] citizenship for a while—with approval,” Redbird said, pointing out that tribes only gained full autonomy to determine who is a member of their tribe during the Obama administration.

While holding tribal citizenship and U.S. citizenship is similar to having dual citizenship in any two nations, Redbird says becoming a tribal citizen can be a complex process that includes filing federal paperwork and sharing information about blood history.  

“I think it can sometimes be harder to be a tribal citizen than people assume,” she said.

Redbird’s analysis of historical tribal constitutions shows that tribes increased the blood quantum necessary to be a member over the 19th and 20th centuries—often as a response to anti-Indian policies. 

“Colonialism and colonial policies have increased blood quantum and made us more exclusionary,” she explained. “We let in fewer citizens when we are subjected to colonial policy.”

This matters today because the Native population jumped to 9.6 million in 2020 from 5.2 million in 2010, which some scholars think is due to the Census’ broader definition of Native American. Redbird says within this population is the largest number of Native children under the age of 18 living in the U.S. in the last 200 years.

“We don't know if they're eligible to be tribal citizens under the current specifications,” Redbird said. “The ability to make it so that our children can be citizens is important.”

The solution to this problem, she says, could be for tribes to redefine what it means to be a citizen.

“If we change our constitutional structure, if we redo our blood quantum, if we change our definition of citizenship, how does that change the number of people who can enroll?” Redbird asked. “How does that change the number of children who can be tribal members?”

Beth Redbird is an assistant professor of sociology, an IPR fellow, and a CNAIR fellow. Doug Kiel is an associate professor of history, an IPR associate, and a CNAIR affiliated faculty member.

Photo credit: Graphic created from a Library of Congress photo: President Calvin Coolidge with four Native American men at the White House in Feb. 1925.

Published: May 29, 2024.