Section 1: Introduction

United States citizenship came gradually to American Indians. Though people of all other ethnic groups received citizenship if they were born on U.S. soil or born to U.S. citizens, American Indians were not citizens until 1924. Before 1924, Indians could obtain citizenship according to certain laws and practices.

For instance, by law, an American Indian who received an allotment and was successful in establishing a home and farm on the allotment qualified for citizenship. A federal law of 1919 provided citizenship to American Indian soldiers and sailors who served in World War I (1917-1918). However, in North Dakota, members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe who had earned citizenship through allotment had to sue for the right to vote. The path to the full rights and responsibilities of citizenship was not smooth.

In 1924, Congress passed a law granting full citizenship to all non-citizen Indians born in the United States. However, this law did not end discrimination against Indians who wanted to vote. The U.S. Constitution gives states control over voting regulations. Just as many states limited the rights of African Americans to vote, some states with large American Indian populations interfered with Indian voting rights. Some states passed laws that denied voting rights to those people in a state of guardianship (Indians were technically under federal guardianship at the time) or who could not read and write in English.

Two members of the Fort McDowell Mohave-Apache tribes, Frank Harrison and Harry Austin, challenged the voting laws of Arizona. Harrison, a veteran of World War II (1941-1945), and Austin, chairman of the Fort McDowell tribe, attempted to register to vote. When they were denied, they sued for the right to vote. The Arizona Supreme Court decided in the case, Harrison v. Laveen, that Indians could not be denied the right to vote. Following that case, other states began to revise their voting laws. However, it was not until the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 became law that the last state laws prohibiting Indians from voting were over-ruled.

Citizenship and voting rights were part of a long process of changing the status of American Indians from wards of the federal government to full citizenship and tribal sovereignty. Another important event was the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) in 1934. The IRA was written to address the problems that allotment had brought to the reservations. The IRA ended the allotment program and restored remaining “surplus” lands that had been opened to non-Indian settlement. The tribes were given funds to purchase more land. The IRA also encouraged each tribe to write a constitution by which it could establish a tribal government.

Many provisions of the IRA were controversial, but many tribes welcomed the repeal of federal rules that prohibited the practice of traditional customs, especially religious customs, and the use of native languages.