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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.

Key Dates in the History of Relations between the United States and Native American Tribes.
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I have listened to many talks from our Great Father. When he first came over the wide waters, he was but a little man. . . . His legs were cramped by sitting long in his big boat, and he begged for a little land to light his fire.

But when the white man had warmed himself before the Indians’ fire and filled himself wit their hominy, he became very large. With a step, he bestrode the mountains, and his feet covered the plains and the valleys. His hand grasped the eastern and western seas and his head rested on the moon.

Then he became our Great Father. He loved his red children, and he said, ‘Get a little further, lest I tread on thee.’ Brothers, I have listened to a great many talks from our Great Father. But they always began and ended in this — ‘Get a little further; you are too near me.’ "

    — Speckled Snake, Creek elder
        (aged 100+), 1829

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 African Americans and women. Native Americans did not become citizens until 1924, and it would be even longer before 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 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.

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