Note: President’s Day is coming up, so we thought we’d examine America’s only tribally-enrolled Vice President.
By SCOTT MCKIE B.P.
ONE FEATHER STAFF
The United States of America has never had an American Indian president, but a little known fact is that it has had an American Indian vice-president. Charles Curtis, an enrolled member of the Kaw Tribe, was the 31st Vice President and served under President Herbert Hoover.
Curtis was born on Jan. 25, 1860 in Topeka, Kan. to Oren Arms Curtis, a Civil War veteran, and Ellen (Pappan) Curtis who was Kaw, Osage, Potawatomi and French and a descendant of Kaw Chief White Plume and Osage Chief Pawhuska.
Curtis was tri-lingual speaking English, French and Kaw.
He had a long political career beginning with a stint in the U.S. House of Representatives serving the Kansas 4th District from 1893-99 and the Kansas 1st District from 1899-1907. Curtis then served as a U.S. Senator from Kansas from 1907-13 and again from 1915-29.
During his career, he served on numerous committees and authored many pieces of legislation.
He was a staunch believer in laws and was quoted as saying, “If you don’t want the laws enforced, then don’t vote for me.”
One of the largest pieces of legislation he brought forth was also one of the most controversial throughout Indian Country. According to Senate.gov, “Curtis devoted much of his attention to his service on the Committee on Indian Affairs, where he drafted the ‘Curtis Act’ in 1989. Entitled ‘An Act for the Protection of the People of the Indian Territory and for Other Purposes’, the Curtis Act actually overturned many treaty rights by allocating federal lands, abolishing tribal courts, and giving the Interior Department control over mineral leases on Indian lands.”
The Act brought along allotments to the Five Civilized Tribes (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee Creek, and Seminole) who were previously exempt from the General Allotment Act of 1887.
On its website, the Oklahoma State Library states, “The Curtis Act helped weaken and dissolve Indian Territory tribal governments by abolishing tribal courts and subjecting all persons in the territory to federal law. This meant that there could be no enforcement of tribal laws and that any tribal legislation passed after 1898 had to be approved by the president of the United States.”
“Prior to 1896, each of the Five Civilized Tribes had exercised sole jurisdiction over its citizenship requirements, determining who was a tribal member and who was not. With the passage of the Curtis Act, Congress authorized the Dawes Commission to prepare new citizenship rolls for each tribe. Sen. Henry L. Dawes, of Massachusetts, undertook the compilation of a census to be used as the basis for allotment of tribal lands to individual Indians. Enrollment of tribe members, and ensuing allotment, was done without tribal consent.”
In Native Americans Today: A Biographical Dictionary, Bruce Elliott Johansen wrote, “Curtis’ endeavors to foster allotment and assimilation were opposed by many Native American leaders of Indian Territory. In essence, the Curtis Act paved the way for Oklahoma statehood in 1907 by destroying tribal land titles and governments there.”
Rose Stremlau wrote in her book, Sustaining the Cherokee Family: Kinship and the Allotment of an Indigenous Nation, “The Curtis Act destroyed tribal sovereignty in Indian Territory. First, it suspended tribal laws and judicial systems. Second, it removed tribal control over assets, entrusting them instead to the secretary of the interior. Third, Congress posted an inspector in Indian Territory to supervise and, essentially, cripple the governments of the Five Tribes. Fourth, the Curtis Act provided a framework for dismantling tribal resource bases.”
Through it all, Curtis felt he was doing the right thing.
R. David Edmunds wrote in The New Warriors: Native American Leaders Since 1900, “…Curtis believed that the federal policies he championed were conceived on the Indians’ behalf. In 1900, after pushing through Congress legislation that provide for the further allotment of tribal lands in Indian Territory, Curtis wrote to Secretary of the Interior Ethan Allen Hitchcock and proudly proclaimed, ‘I have done more to secure legislation for the (Indian) Territory than all others put together since the 54th Congress (of 1896).’”
Curtis once said, “Bias and prejudice are attitudes to be kept in hand, not attitudes to be avoided.”
Curtis was married to Anna Elizabeth Baird “Annie” Curtis and had three children including Permelia Jeanette Curtis, Henry “Harry” King Curtis and Leona Virginia Curtis.
He passed away in Washington, DC on Feb. 8, 1936 at the age of 76. In 2012, he was given a place on the Kansas Walk of Honor.