Photographs of Curtis in 1931, 1918 and with Herbert Hoover in 1928 (Library of Congress)
Since the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, journalists, scholars and activists have celebrated Harris as the first U.S. vice president who is a woman, a South Asian American and a Black American. But she is not the first person of color to hold the office. For many people, this comes as a surprise. However, for scholars of Native American and Indigenous studies, as well as many U.S. historians whose work focuses on the executive branch of the federal government, Charles Curtis’ name is already well known. Curtis, a member of the Kaw Nation and the first person of color to serve as vice president, is suddenly a figure of popular interest.
Born in 1860, Curtis was proud of his Kansas roots, as is clear from his personal papers located in the Kansas Historical Society. He grew up speaking Kansa and French before he learned English, and he remained close to his Indigenous relatives and the Kaw Nation. His political career spanned six terms in the U.S. House of Representatives (1892–1907) and 20 years in the Senate (1907–13, 1915–29), where he served as the Republican Party whip and majority leader. In 1928, he was elected as Herbert Hoover’s vice president.
Curtis’ most lasting legacy, certainly for scholars of American Indian history, is the 1898 Curtis Act. It amended the Dawes Act of 1887, which gave the federal government the power to break up tribally held lands. Most federal Indian policy officials interpreted this law as dismantling Indigenous claims to communally owned land and encouraging the incorporation of Native people into American society by incentivizing “improvements” they made to the land allotted to them. Any “surplus” land—that is, land not allotted to tribal people—was available for sale to non-Natives. Before any of this newly private property was allotted, the government created a process by which it would determine which Native people were eligible to receive land. This resulted in the creation of a federal definition for Indian identity, a policy that extended the federal government’s interventions into the lives of Native people as its perceived “wards.”
Twelve years later, the Curtis Act extended allotment to Oklahoma’s Five Tribes—the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Muscogee (Creek) and Seminole—who had been exempted from the 1887 act. As a Kansas representative in Congress and a Kaw citizen, Curtis authored the law, officially titled “An Act for the Protection of the People of Indian Territory, and for Other Purposes.” The title embodies a paternalistic discourse that pervaded federal Indian policy at the time. Despite his name being attached to it, Curtis wrote in his autobiography about being unhappy with the final version. He had hoped that it would be better than the Dawes Act, which he criticized for abrogating time-honored treaties, and that his act would do more to help Native nations transition to a system of private land ownership. Instead, it was far more radical, as it abolished tribal courts and instituted civil governments in an attempt to merge Indian territory with the new state of Oklahoma. Cherokee leader Robert L. Owen, president of the First National Bank of Muskogee, objected to the Curtis Act for trying to destroy tribal governments in the Indian Territory.
He maneuvered through a settler state that erased Indigenous claims to sovereignty over land, politics and culture. But it is too facile to write off Curtis as an assimilationist.
Despite Curtis’ own connections to his Kaw, Potawatomi and Osage relatives, the Curtis Act, like the Dawes Act before it, increased settlement by white Americans on Indian lands, further dispossessed Native people and weakened or dissolved tribal forms of governance. Before 1896, the Five Tribes (according to M. Kaye Tatro’s Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture) “had exercised sole jurisdiction” over citizenship requirements for each of their nations. With the Curtis Act, the federal government now decided who was eligible for tribal citizenship, which furthered the disenfranchisement of Black freedmen who were members of these tribal nations. Today, Native American and Indigenous studies scholars and Native people recognize the Curtis Act as a critical turning point in the history of tribal sovereignty.
As individual Natives struggled to make a living with their allotments, Curtis still favored certain aspects of “assimilation.” He believed Indigenous people would survive colonization only by pursuing American education and incorporating themselves into American institutions, while managing to retain parts of their Native identity. He thought his own life was a testament to such a strategy. Curtis believed that this sort of incorporation was the future for Native Americans, given the increasing power of the U.S. federal government in the realm of Indian affairs.
Photographs of Curtis in 1924 and with a member of the U.S. Indian Band in 1929 (Library of Congress)
Image of Chief Washunga of the Kaw Nation, ca. 1900 (Smithsonian Institution)
Curtis was a complicated figure. He felt at home among his Kaw family as well as in the halls of Congress. He maneuvered through a settler state that continued to erase Indigenous claims to sovereignty over land, politics and culture at every turn. It is too facile to write off Curtis as an assimilationist, because he lived during a time in which many Indigenous intellectual leaders struggled with which aspects of American culture they wanted to incorporate into their lives and which to challenge, rewrite and reimagine. Although his views on assimilationist legislation became more critical by the mid-1920s, Curtis largely accepted the dominance of white settler society.
While Curtis pushed for assimilation as a member of the federal government, he did not represent the Kaw Nation. Throughout the 20th century, many Kaw Nation citizens resisted the encroachment of mainstream America into their lives by continuing their traditions, especially in the face of schooling that did not allow their children to speak their native language. Today, the Kaw participate in an annual powwow and other ceremonial activities aimed at cultural revitalization and have found economic opportunities through a casino and tobacco shops, enabling them to create social service programs and offer emergency assistance and academic scholarships to their citizens.
How are we to understand Curtis’ legacy today? What does his career as a politician teach us about Harris? The two are linked not only by the history each made in their respective elections but also by the historical moment in which each election took place. The racial and cultural politics of the 1920s—a time in which the second iteration of the Ku Klux Klan emerged—were easily as fraught as they are today. White supremacy was rampant and powerful then, as it is now. On Jan. 6, 2021, a violent mob contesting the legal election of President Biden and Vice President Harris desecrated the U.S. Capitol building. That the rioters carried Confederate flags, celebrated the Holocaust and dressed in quasi-Native American clothing underscores the continuing influence of white nationalism in American culture.
Historians track change and continuity over time. In 1928 and 2020, the winning vice presidential candidates allowed marginalized peoples to see themselves in positions of power never before understood as attainable. At the same time, delving deeper into a historical figure such as Curtis reveals a portrait rife with complexity and contradiction. A man who sometimes voted against the best interests of his fellow Indians also achieved a great deal at a time when the odds were against him. His legacy remains to some degree unsettling, perhaps mysterious.
Like that of Harris, his place in history is unprecedented.
Kiara M. Vigil (Dakota/Apache heritage), associate professor of American studies at Amherst, is the author of Indigenous Intellectuals: Sovereignty, Citizenship, and the American Imagination, 1880–1930 (Cambridge University Press) and a book-in-progress on Native Americans in the entertainment industry. This article is adapted from a Jan. 19 article in Perspectives on History (historians.org).
Illustrations by Celina Pereira