As the authors of the Constitution defined their new country, they struggled with the presence of indigenous people. Article 1, Section 2 states that Natives are not under the control of the United States, and therefore cannot be taxed. The Constitution also states that Congress has the power to “regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among several states, and with Indian tribes.” Thus, the leaders of the United States viewed Natives Americans as somewhere in between foreign nations and American citizens.
In 1817, the Cherokee nation became the first native group to gain U.S. citizenship. One by one, other native nations became citizens. Still, there was resistance. In 1856, Attorney General Caleb Cushing stated, “Indians are the subjects of the United States, and therefore are not, in mere right of home-birth, citizens of the United States.” And when the 14th Amendment and the first civil rights act passed in 1866, Michigan Senator Jacob Howard said, “I am not yet prepared to pass an act of naturalization by which all the Indian savages, wild or tame… are to become my fellow-citizens and go to the polls and vote with me…” Another concern was that because of their substantial numbers, Native Americans could overpower the white vote.
Because the 15th Amendment barred states from restricting voting on account of race, states found other ways: 1. Residency–Native Americans were not state residents if they resided on reservations. 2. Self-termination–they must abandon tribal ties. 3. Taxation—since Natives did not pay taxes, they could not vote. 4. Guardianship–Native Americans were incompetent “wards of the state” and lacked of ability to read English.
After World War I, any Native person who had fought was a citizen under the assumption that “these particular Indians had demonstrated that they had become part of the larger Anglo culture and were no longer wholly Indian.”
In the early 1920s, Congress considered a bill to make the remainder of Native Americans citizens so that they would “adopt Anglo culture.” But in the Indian Citizenship Act passed on June 24, 1924, Natives would not have to give up their culture to be a United States citizen. This “dual citizen” status creates tension even today,
With the need for more soldiers in World War II, Congress reaffirmed Native people’s citizenship with the Nationality Act of 1940. However, when some 25,000 veterans returned home after the war, they realized that even though they had risked their lives for their country, they were still not allowed to vote.
The 1965 Voting Rights Act granted the right to vote in all states, and the 1968 “Indian Bill of Rights,” guaranteed Native Americans constitutional rights and protections. However, efforts by states and municipalities to disenfranchise Native Americans are ongoing.