In some ways, it is remarkably easy for most of us to become a citizen of the United States. For most U.S. citizens, the simple fact that we were born within the country's borders qualifies us. We become citizens at birth. But it was not until well into the 20th Century that a large group of native-born people were given citizenship.
|The full meaning of citizenship was, in fact, behind many of the debates of the early 20th Century.
- Votes for women was a struggle over allowing women to participate fully in our democracy.
- African Americans were given citizenship after the Civil War, but discrimination and racial tensions prevented them from voting until well into the new century.
- The Progressive Movement was able to enact a series of changes in law that made elections more representative.
- Finally, progressives turned their attention to the relationship between Native American people and the U.S. government.
The struggles of women and African Americans point out the fact that citizenship does not automatically ensure voting rights. The road to citizenship for native people was even longer than for the African Americans and women. All Native Americans did not become citizens until 1924, and it would be even longer before all Native Americans gained the right to vote.
This is a story of treaties, reservations and legal fights. Throughout the 1800s, native tribes gradually lost claim to the lands they had inhabited. And it was not until the 1879 Standing Bear trial that American Indians were even recognized as persons in the eyes of the white man's law. Judge Dundy declared that yes, Indians were people within the meaning of the laws, and that they had the rights associated with a writ of habeas corpus. However, he left unsettled the question of Indian citizenship.
How did the Native Americans finally acquire citizenship? Was it by congressional law, a constitutional amendment, presidential decree, or a Supreme Court decision? There is no one answer. There was a patchwork of approaches before Congress finally tried to fashion an answer for all native peoples.
The journey by Native Americans on the road to citizenship was marked by travels through a maze of U.S. Federal Indian polices that left the Indian nations exhausted and nearly extinct by the time they were given citizenship. And it was another 20 years before they had the right to vote throughout the U.S.