Section 5: Swift vs. Leach

In 1920, Martin Swift Cloud was a man in the prime of his life. He lived with his two children near his parents on the Standing Rock reservation. Many years earlier he had held a job as a janitor at the Marmont Day school. He had an allotment and was doing well.

1911 Voting Law
Document 11: In 1911, the legislature amended the previous voting law using the words 'male voters.' Though women had been voting in school elections for nearly three decades, the new voting law specifically excluded women voters.

His last name was his father’s name, Swift Cloud. It is likely that when he attended school, he received the Christian first name, Martin. His Lakota name was Cetanmaza.

In 1918, Martin Swift Cloud sued the Sioux County Commissioners for the right to vote. The commissioners were J. C. Leach, J. A. Stiles, and W. R. Cibert. Under North Dakota voting laws, “civilized persons of Indian descent who shall have severed their tribal relations” (See Document 11)  were considered eligible voters. Swift Cloud argued that he met the fundamental qualifications of citizenship though he had not severed ties with the tribe. In addition, because he had been successful in managing his allotment, he had been granted citizenship in an elaborate ceremony at Standing Rock agency.

The question this lawsuit considered was: what did an Indian have to do to become a citizen with voting rights?  Indians, unlike other people born in the United States, were not born into citizenship. In 1924, Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act. By this law, all Indians became citizens with the right to vote under the laws of the state they lived in. However, before 1924, Indians could become citizens only if they accepted the terms of the Dawes Act (1887) and met the approval of the federal reservation agent. Citizenship did not guarantee reservation Indians the right to vote.

Martin Swift (as he was cited in the suit) believed that he had attained all the qualities of citizenship and wanted to vote. He was apparently denied the right to vote in the November, 1918 general election. Once denied that right, he could sue to ensure that right in the future.

In general, the law and society considered an American Indian qualified to vote when he owned property, worked (at a job or on his own farm), lived by the laws of the state (not in the traditions of his tribe,) had severed ties with the tribe, and had adopted Christianity. Of course, non-Indian, native-born, or naturalized citizens did not have to meet these proofs.

The North Dakota Supreme Court eventually heard the case. On May 26, 1920, the court decided in favor of Martin Swift Cloud. The court opinion stated that Swift Cloud and 273 other Indians of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, were qualified voters under North Dakota law. The court decision read:

Trust-patent Indians have in fact become civilized persons of Indian descent and, in fact, for more than two years preceding a general election have actually severed their tribal relations and have adopted the modes and habits of civilized life, and where it appears under the testimony of the Superintendents of the Indian Agency in charge of such Indians, both present and former and others, that they were qualified as civilized persons, to be electors . . .

Though Martin Swift Cloud still lived on the Standing Rock reservation, he had formally severed ties with the tribe by accepting an allotment of land (which made him a “trust-patent Indian.”)  Sioux County was (and still is) contiguous with (the same as) Standing Rock Reservation, so living on the reservation did not necessarily tie him to the tribe.

Why is this important? Martin Swift Cloud raised the legal issue of the right to vote at a time when voting rights were expanding. Though Asian Americans could not vote and African Americans met stiff resistance when they tried to vote, American women had gained voting rights. Over the next four decades, voting rights continued to expand.

The actions of men like Martin Swift Cloud brought the matter of Indian citizenship and suffrage to the public and to Congress. As the states expanded the guarantees of citizenship, the nation had to follow suit.

Voting rights was the final step in gaining full citizenship. North Dakota and the nation could no longer treat Indians as inferior and unqualified for full citizenship rights and obligations. It is important that, in North Dakota, this final step was initiated by an American Indian.