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The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, also known as the Snyder Act, was proposed by Representative Homer P. Snyder (R) of New York and granted full U.S. citizenship to America's indigenous peoples, called "Indians" in this Act. (The Fourteenth Amendment already defined as citizens any person born in the U.S., but only if "subject to the jurisdiction thereof"; this latter clause excluded anyone who already had citizenship in a foreign power such as a tribal nation.) The act was signed into law by President Calvin Coolidge on June 2, 1924. It was enacted partially in recognition of the thousands of Indians who served in the armed forces in WWI.
The text of the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act (43 U.S. Stats. At Large, Ch. 233, p. 253 (1924)) reads as follows:
BE IT ENACTED by the Senate and house of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That all non citizen Indians born within the territorial limits of the United States be, and they are hereby, declared to be citizens of the United States: Provided That the granting of such citizenship shall not in any manner impair or otherwise affect the right of any Indian to tribal or other property."
Approved, June 2, 1924. June 2, 1924. [H. R. 6355.] [Public, No. 175.]
SIXTY-EIGHTH CONGRESS. Sess. I. CHS. 233. 1924.
See House Report No. 222, Certificates of Citizenship to Indians, 68th Congress, 1st Session, Feb. 22, 1924.Note: This statute has been codified in the United States Code at Title 8, Sec. 1401(b).
The Act granted citizenship to about 125,000 of 300,000 indigenous people in the United States. Those indigenous people that were not included in citizenship numbers had already become citizens by other means; entering the armed forces, giving up tribal affiliations, and assimilating into mainstream American life were ways this was done (Peterson 121). Citizenship was granted in a piecemeal fashion before the Act, which was the first more inclusive method of granting Native American citizenship. The Act did not include citizens born before the effective date of the 1924 act, or outside of the United States as an indigenous person, however, and it was not until the Nationality Act of 1940 that all born on U.S. soil were citizens (Haas 16, Haney 29).
Even Native Americans who were granted citizenship rights under the 1924 Act, may not have had full citizenship and suffrage rights until 1948. According to a survey by the Department of Interior, seven states still refused to grant Indians voting rights in 1938. Discrepancies between federal and state control provided loopholes in the Act’s enforcement. States justified discrimination based on state statutes and constitutions. Three main arguments for Indian voting exclusion were Indian exemption from real estate taxes, maintenance of tribal affiliation and the notion that Indians were under guardianship, or lived on lands controlled by federal trusteeship (Peterson 121). By 1947 all states with large Indian populations, except Arizona and New Mexico, had extended voting rights to Native Americans who qualified under the 1924 Act. Finally, in 1948 these states withdrew their prohibition on Indian voting because of a judicial decision (Bruyneel).
Under the 1924 Act indigenous people did not have to apply for citizenship, nor did they have to give up their tribal citizenship to become a U.S. citizen. Most tribes had communal property and in order to have a right to the land, Indians must belong to the tribe. Thus, dual citizenship was allowed. Earlier views on the way Indian citizenship should be granted, suggested allocating land to individuals. Of these land treaties, the Dawes Act, was the most prominent. The Act would allocate land to individual Native Americans, and because they were landowners and eventually would pay taxes on the land and become “proficient members of society”, they would be granted citizenship. This idea was presented by a group of white American citizens, called “Friends of the Indian”, who lobbied for the assimilation of indigenous people into American society. They specifically hoped to do that by elevating indigenous people to the status of US citizens. Though the Dawes Act did allocate land, the notion that this should be directly tied to citizenship was abandoned in the early 20th century in favor of a more direct path to American citizenship (Bruyneel).
Although some white citizen groups were supportive of Indian citizenship, Indians themselves were mixed in the debate. Those that supported it considered the Act a way to secure a long-standing political identity. Those that rejected it were worried about tribal sovereignty and citizenship. Many leaders in the Native American community at the time, like Charles Santee, a Santee Sioux, was interested in Native American integration into the larger society, but was adamant about preserving the Native American identity. Many were also reluctant to trust the government that had taken their land and discriminated so violently against them (Bruyneel).
With little lobbying effort from Native Americans themselves, two primarily white groups shaped the law: Progressive Senators and white American activists, like the “Friends of the Indians”. Progressive Senators on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee were supportive of the Act because they thought it would reduce corruption and inefficiency in the Department of Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. These institutions would no longer be in control of citizenship regulations if citizenship were automatically granted to all indigenous people. They also hoped to empower Indians through citizenship (Bruyneel).
Other groups in favor of Native American citizenship supported it because of the “guardianship” status they felt the U.S. government should take to protect indigenous people. They worried Indians were being taken advantage by non-indigenous Americans for their land. They advocated that the government had an obligation to supervise and protect native citizens. The Indian Rights Association, a key group in the development of this legislation, advocated that federal guardianship was a necessary component of citizenship. They pushed for the clause “tribal rights and property” in the Indian Citizenship Act, so as to preserve Indian identity but gain citizenship rights and protection (Bruyneel).
One active assimilation proponent of the early 20th century, Dr. Joseph K. Dixon, wrote (referring to soldiers who served in World War I):
The Indian, though a man without a country, the Indian who has suffered a thousand wrongs considered the white man's burden and from mountains, plains and divides, the Indian threw himself into the struggle to help throttle the unthinkable tyranny of the Hun. The Indian helped to free Belgium, helped to free all the small nations, helped to give victory to the Stars and Stripes. The Indian went to France to help avenge the ravages of autocracy. Now, shall we not redeem ourselves by redeeming all the tribes?
Nipo T. Strongheart, a performer-lecturer on Native American topics at Lyceum and Chautauqua and similar activities across the United State from 1917 through the 1920s, gathered signatures on petitions supporting Indian enfranchisement into the 10s of thousands. Some of his trips into Pennsylvania were in support of Melville Clyde Kelly, a supporter of the bill in Congress, who had a district there. The petitions and other advocacy work helped pass bill, though he was disillusioned with the results.