'They're the only ethnic
group in America that had to give up their culture to get the right
A photo taken during
World War II includes Pfc. Jimmie King a Marine and
Navajo Code Talker fourth from left in the front row.
King and other service members were part of lawsuits and other
efforts in the 1940s to ensure voting rights for Native Americans.
(Courtesy of the National Archives)
Pvt. Ralph W. Anderson, a Navajo who had served in the U.S. Army
in World War II, had a question about the U.S. policies that kept
him and other Native Americans from voting.
In his May 4, 1943, letter from Fort Knox, Ky., he wrote:
"We all know Congress granted the Indian citizenship in 1924,
but we still have no privilege to vote. We do not understand what
kind of citizenship you would call that."
He went on: "We feel that we should be recognized as a full
citizen of the United States of America.
Every [Navajo] that
can read and write should have privileges to vote in all elections.
That is the way it should be according to the Constitution of [the]
United States of America."
"Hundreds of young [Navajo] boys beside us took the oath of
allegiance to the flag and the country whom they are now in the
armed forces and [scattered] all over the world fighting for their
country just like anybody else."
Anderson signed the letter, "Very truly yours, From the Navajo
His letter, Native American political experts and historians said,
offers a window into the decades-long, complicated fight to vote
that involved dozens of lawsuits, Jim Crow-style tactics, and racist
efforts to deny the ballot to American Indians.
Even now, Native Americans face barriers to voting due to a host
of issues, including not having the required voter identification,
homelessness, lack of traditional mailing addresses, and unequal
access to in-person voting, according to Jacqueline De León,
a staff attorney for the Native American Rights Fund.
Even with the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924 that
technically gave Native Americans the right to vote, historians
said, tribal members were still shut out from voting for decades.
For tens of thousands of Native Americans who served in the two
world wars, it was especially disappointing because they were denied
their rights in a country they'd fought for and that was built on
land their ancestors had inhabited for centuries.
"It sends a message that you're not a citizen. You're not human,"
said Debbie Nez-Manuel, who is a citizen of the Navajo Nation and
was the first Native American from Arizona elected to the Democratic
National Committee. "That message came across loud and clear, even
"When you serve the U.S. government you're thinking, 'I gave up
my life,'" Nez-Manuel said. "'I sacrificed. Where is the reciprocity?'"
The tale of Native Americans trying to get the right to vote is
linked to their citizenship.
Though some Native Americans can trace their ancestral roots back
more than 30,000 years on land that is now the United States, they
weren't guaranteed or given citizenship, denying them
the right to vote.
"For the first 150 years of the existence of the U.S., Native Americans
were not allowed to vote," said De León, who is an enrolled
member of the Isleta Pueblo in New Mexico.
And many Native Americans didn't see the need to push for citizenship
or the right to vote in the 18th century. But as settlers and conquerors
pushed them from their land, it became clearer to Native Americans
that they'd have to become involved in the U.S. political system
to save their lands and culture. Still, some were reluctant because
they worried that would harm their tribal sovereignty and rights.
"Being part of a tribe is crucial to being Indian, and it means
you're part of a separate nation, a separate government," said Dan
McCool, a professor of political science at the University of Utah
and author of the book "Native Vote: American Indians, the Voting
Rights Act, and the Right to Vote."
"They wanted to be separate from America from when white people
first arrived," McCool said. But that proved impossible.
As Native Americans were pushed from their tribal lands in the
19th century, citizenship was dangled like a carrot. In some cases,
Native Americans were granted citizenship in exchange for their
One 1855 treaty with the Wyandot Indians, who were pushed from
the upper Great Lakes area to Oklahoma, demanded all of the tribe's
land and that the "tribe shall be dissolved and terminated" in exchange
for becoming "citizens of the United States."
Other laws and policies prohibited Native Americans from becoming
citizens because they were considered "subjects" or "wards" of the
government. In 1856, U.S. Attorney General Caleb Cushing wrote:
"The fact, therefore, that Indians are born in the country does
not make them citizens of the United States. The simple truth is
plain, that Indians are subjects of the United States, and therefore
are not, in mere right of home-birth, citizens of the United States."
By the early 1900s more than half of Native Americans in the country
had become U.S. citizens, but they'd done it at a huge sacrifice,
having given up at least 90 million acres through treaties, allotments
or forced statutes.
In many instances, they were offered citizenship if they assimilated.
They had to learn to read and speak English to be granted citizenship.
In Minnesota, the state's constitution had a "cultural purity test"
that prohibited Native Americans from voting unless they "adopted
the language, customs, and habits of civilization."
Native Americans are the "only ethnic group in America that had
to give up their culture to get the right to vote," according to
Even with the 14th and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution,
which granted citizenship and the right to vote to African Americans,
the government interpreted those laws so they excluded Native Americans.
In the 1860s, when citizenship was extended to formerly enslaved
people born in the United States, Michigan Sen. Jacob Howard declared:
"I am not yet prepared to pass a sweeping act of naturalization
by which all the Indian savages, wild or tame, belonging to a tribal
relation, are to become my fellow-citizens and go to the polls and
vote with me."
Even so, Native Americans enlisted in the military during World
War I. "Ironically, they were fighting for freedoms abroad that
they did not possess at home," wrote Willard Hughes Rollings, a
historian on Native Americans at the University of Nevada, in an
article called "Citizenship and Suffrage: The Native American Struggle
for Civil Rights in the American West, 1830-1965. At the end of
the war, Congress gave citizenship to Native American veterans who
had been honorably discharged.
But when Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924, many
Native Americans still faced what historians called "Jim Crow, Indian-style."
Whites used tactics to intimidate Native Americans and prevent them
from voting much like efforts used in the South against African
To keep Native Americans from voting, states refused to put polling
places near reservations or tribal communities, and required Native
Americans to pass literacy or English language tests or pay poll
"We became citizens, but it was a partial citizenship," said David
E. Wilkins, a citizen of the Lumbee Nation in Pembroke, N.C., who
teaches Native American law and policy at the University of Richmond
in Virginia. "Our race still determined that we were less than full
One Arizona court ruled against Native Americans being allowed
to vote because they were considered "wards of the government."
In its decision, the court wrote, "no person under guardianship,
non compos mentis, or insane shall be qualified to vote at any election."
During World War II, thousands of Native Americans served overseas,
then faced discrimination at home. When some of the famous Navajo
Code Talkers were denied the right to vote, it helped focus more
attention on the racial disparities Native Americans faced in voting.
A page from a 1943 letter
written by U.S. Army Pvt. Ralph W. Anderson, a Navajo who
served in World War II, as he questioned his right to register
to vote. (National Archives)
Anderson, the Army private, who had questioned why he was denied
the right to register to vote in Arizona, got a response from General
Superintendent J.M. Stewart, who oversaw the Navajo reservation
at Window Rock.
Stewart wrote, "There should be no question that you, who are making
such great sacrifices for your country, should have some voice in
how it should be governed. Your patriotism is not denied, your devotion
to duty is beyond question and in certain phases of warfare, the
Navajo has no equal. With such a record, there can be no denial
that you are entitled to the same right of suffrage as other citizens."
It took until the 1960s and the passage of the Voting Rights Act
for Native Americans to get the right to vote in every state, with
Utah and Maine being among the last to recognize their full voting
But the legacy of being disenfranchised for so long persists. Experts
estimate there are roughly 1 million American Indians who are not
registered to vote, making them what one voting rights advocate
calls a "potent but untapped political force."
Even now Native American elders still sometimes "tell younger people
not to vote" in U.S. elections, said De León, who helped
McCool author a NARF report called "Obstacles at Every Turn," which
was published in June and looked at the barriers Native Americans
have faced in voting.
"It has to do with the humiliation they were subjected to," De
León said, "and the idea that you'd have to give up your
Indian culture to vote."
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