By Daniel M. Cobb, Ph.D., University of North Carolina
In 1924, Congress passed the Snyder Act, which made all American Indians the citizens of the United States. A U.S. citizenship, however, wasn’t a panacea. A monolithic citizenship of sameness that denied Native people their rights as citizens of tribal nations was for some Indians a problem, not a solution. Moreover, many Natives looked at the act as an unwanted imposition that violated their sovereignty.
As world leaders gathered for the Paris Peace Conference between January 1919 and January 1920, members of the Society of American Indians (SAI) expressed their position. The SAI based their vision for the future of Native America on U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s vision for the postwar world.
Alluding to the president’s “14 Points”, Dakota physician Charles Eastman and Yankton Sioux writer Zitkala-Sa emphasized the importance of guaranteeing the rights of self-government and self-determination for all of the little peoples and small nations of the world—including tribal nations.
So, too, did Crow leader Robert Yellowtail, whose people opposed a bill that would open a portion of their Montana reservation to non-Indians. During a congressional hearing in 1919, Yellowtail reminded legislators that treaties were “sacred covenants” and that the Crow were a “separate semi-sovereign nation.”
Learn more about Native resistance in the west.
During the same period, the Iroquois reminded the United States and Canada that they didn’t define themselves as citizens of either nation, didn’t seek such a status, and wouldn’t allow themselves to be treated as anything less than equal members of the family of nations.
Deskaheh, a Cayuga from the Six Nations in Canada, pushed the connection to international law even further. Echoing sentiments of Iroquois people on both sides of a national border they didn’t recognize as legitimate, he sought admission for the Confederacy in the newly established League of Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1923. The Iroquois weren’t alone in rejecting U.S. citizenship.
The Pueblo Stance
In the Southwest, the Pueblos of San Juan, Taos, Picuris, Santa Clara, San Ildefonso, Nambe, and Tesuque also went on record in opposition to it in 1920. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Pueblo people engaged in a desperate battle to save their homelands from non-Indian squatters, many of who claimed to have purchased land from individual Pueblos.
Whether Pueblo land claims would prevail depended on whether the Pueblo were defined as full citizens of the United States or as Indians. In 1913, the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Sandoval appeared to settle the matter. The Court affirmed U.S. recognition of Spanish land grants and ruled that the federal trust relationship was still in place. This meant that individual Pueblos could not sell land to non-Indians, and it seemed to undermine the latter’s claims to ownership. The contests over disputed land titles continued, nonetheless.
This is a transcript from the video series Native Peoples of North America. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Opposing the Bursum Bill
In 1922, New Mexico Senator Holm Bursum proposed a bill tilted unabashedly in favor of non-Pueblo claimants and rushed it through the Senate without even a hearing. In response, delegates from 19 Pueblos met in Santo Domingo to operationalize the All Indian Pueblo Council. This political organization originated in opposition to Spanish colonialism in the late 16th century.
Its 20th-century reemergence now included an alliance with sympathetic non-Indians, and together they successfully prevented the Bursum Bill from becoming law. In so doing, the All Indian Pueblo Council articulated an alternative to the vision of the citizenship of sameness.
In “An Appeal by the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico to the People of the United States,” the council noted, “This bill will destroy our common life and will rob us of everything we hold dear—our lands, our customs, our traditions. Are the American people willing to see this happen?”
Ban on Dance
In the wake of World War I, federal officials became increasingly hostile toward traditional ceremonial practices. The Bureau of Indian Affairs took action, issuing circulars directing agency superintendents to withhold rations and imprison Indians who violated bans on dances and other ceremonial practices.
Native people resisted this suppression in a number of ways, including the holding of social dances on the 4th of July and Armistice Day or by raising money for the Red Cross and celebrating the bravery of returned soldiers. Lakota medicine societies also conducted religious dances in public under the guise of performances or demonstrations to deflect criticism. They also bedecked their horses, wagons, regalia, and dance grounds with American flags.
Traditional dances and other ceremonial practices, then, were not antithetical to U.S. citizenship in the minds of the Native people involved.
Learn more about the Ghost Dance.
The Constitutional Argument
Pueblo people took an even more direct approach toward relating the protection of traditional practices to the rights U.S. citizens held dear. In a letter to U.S. government officials in 1921, Pueblo representatives wrote: “You know better than we do that the Constitution of these United States gives the right and liberty to all people to worship according to the dictates of their own conscience.”
This line of argumentation surely carried additional weight, as Pueblos well knew, in the wake of a war fought in the name of making the world safe for democracy.
World War I created new spaces for Native Americans to adeptly assert their own definitions of citizenship and sovereignty. Indeed, by the mid-1920s, the assault on Pueblo land rights had abated. The attempts to ban dances were in retreat. Native people secured U.S. citizenship, but notably not at the expense of tribal citizenship.
Common Questions about Native American Citizenship
The Society of American Indians based their vision for the future of Native America on U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s vision for the postwar world. They spoke of the importance of guaranteeing the rights of self-government and self-determination for all of the little peoples and small nations of the world—including tribal nations.
The Iroquois reminded the United States and Canada that they didn’t define themselves as citizens of either nation, didn’t seek such a status, and wouldn’t allow themselves to be treated as anything less than equal members of the family of nations.
The Pueblo drew distinctions between U.S. and tribal citizenship, as well as U.S. and tribal sovereignty. Moreover, they offered a vision in which all of them could coexist, by appealing to Constitutional Rights of American citizens.