Since the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, journalists, scholars, and activists have celebrated Harris as the first vice president who is a woman and of Asian American and African American heritage. She is not, however, the first person of color to hold the office. For many people, this comes as a surprise. However, for scholars of Native American and Indigenous Studies (NAIS), as well as many US historians whose work focuses on the executive branch of the federal government, Charles Curtis’s name is already well-known. Curtis, a member of the Kaw Nation and the first person of color to serve as vice president, is suddenly a figure of popular interest.
Born in 1860, Curtis was proud of his Kansas roots, as is clear from his personal papers located in the Kansas Historical Society. He grew up speaking both Kansa and French, before he learned English, and he remained close to his Indigenous relatives and the Kaw nation. Curtis may be most notable for his political career, which spanned six terms as a congressman (1892–1907) and 20 years as a senator (1907–13, 1915–29), where he served as the Republican Party whip and majority leader. In 1928, he was elected as Herbert Hoover’s vice president.
Curtis’s most lasting legacy, certainly for scholars of American Indian history, is the Curtis Act. The 1898 Curtis Act amended the Dawes Act of 1887, which gave the federal government the power to break up tribally held lands. Most federal Indian policy officials interpreted this law as dismantling Indigenous claims to communally owned land and encouraging the incorporation of Native people into American society by incentivizing “improvements” they made to the land allotted to them. Any “surplus” land—which was not allotted to tribal people—was available for sale to non-Natives. Before any of this newly private property was allotted, the government created a process by which it would determine which Native people were eligible to receive land. This resulted in the creation of a federal definition for Indian identity, a policy that extended the federal government’s interventions into the lives of Native people as its perceived “wards.”
Twelve years later, the Curtis Act extended allotment to the Five Tribes—the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Muscogee (Creek), and Seminole living in Oklahoma—who had been exempted from the 1887 act. As a Kansas representative in Congress and a Kaw citizen, Curtis authored the law, which was officially titled “An Act for the Protection of the People of Indian Territory, and For Other Purposes.” The title embodies a paternalistic discourse that pervaded federal Indian policy at the time. Despite his name being attached to it, Curtis wrote in his autobiography about being unhappy with the final version. He had hoped it would be better than the Dawes Act, which he criticized for abrogating time-honored treaties, and that his act would do more to help Native nations transition to a system of private land ownership. Instead, it was far more radical as it abolished tribal courts and instituted civil governments in an attempt to merge Indian territory with the new state of Oklahoma. Cherokee leader Robert L. Owen, president of the First National Bank of Muskogee, objected to the Curtis Act for trying to destroy tribal governments in the Indian Territory.