Native Americans and the Evolution of Citizenship in the 19th Century

After the American Revolution, Native Americans within the territory of the United States were consistently excluded from citizenship by deliberate design. It ultimately required a long process to even put into place provisions allowing Native Americans to legally qualify for citizenship. The implementation of the Dawes Act in 1887 put in place procedures that allowed them to acquire citizenship, however it would be a citizenship conditional on chauvinistic ideas of “civilization” and a European system of land ownership.

From nearly the beginning of the United States government Native Americans were intentionally excluded. Apportionment of Congressional districts in the Constitution, based on population, excluded “Indians not taxed.” The Constitution additionally enumerates “foreign nations,” “the several states,” and “Indian tribes,” placing Native Americans in a legal limbo, neither fully foreign or fully domestic. (McCool 1)

Cherokee Nation in Georgia in the early 19th century. This image is in the public domain. Credit: Anthony Finley, via. Wikimedia.

“Wards to a Guardian”

The 19th century would not see any change in attitude. In the 1831 Supreme Court decision Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, Chief Justice John Marshall created a new formulation for the Cherokee Nation’s legal relationship to the Federal government. Describing the Cherokee as a “domestic dependent nation,” Marshall created a formula that carefully avoided to designating them as a foreign nation. Instead, he patronizingly referenced their “state of pupilage.” While the Cherokee comprised their own nation, they “resembled wards to a guardian.” (Deloria 133) The same year, in another case, Marshall made clear his opinion that it was impossible for Native Americans to “mix” with the greater American population. (Rosen 19)

A racist belief that Native Americans were inherently unable to integrate into the larger political body was widespread. In the 1866 Congressional debates on the first Civil Rights Act, Wisconsin Senator James Doolittle declared the citizenship for Native Americans would degrade the concept of citizen, which “should be a title as proud as that of king.” For Doolittle, all other American citizens would be lessened should the institution be expanded to the Native Americans under American jurisdiction. (McCool 3) At the same time, a Nebraska newspaper, in a more extreme example of this viewpoint, advocated for the wholesale massacre of Native Americans. Most Americans were totally unwilling to consider sharing the American political system with the “fraternity of redskins.” (McCool 5)

Imposing Land “Ownership”

Native Americans were not wholly excluded from citizenship, however. The 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty provided a limited avenue for some Native Americans, who received patents for land under the treaty, to gain citizenship. (McCool 5) Tying traditional land ownership to citizenship would become the means through which Native Americans would first be granted access to the same rights enjoyed by white, so-called “civilized” Americans.

Dawes Act

The 1887 Dawes Act would extend that concept across the country. Dividing Native American territory into allotments, the law extended citizenship to only those Native Americans who agreed to accept such allotments and abandon their traditional culture. Citizenship was available, but would be explicitly associated with the adoption of white American culture, the “habits of civilized life” as the act itself phrased it. In the process of allotment, nearly half of Native American land had been taken. In 1901 President Theodore Roosevelt called this system of dividing up Native American territory a “mighty pulverizing engine,” celebrating the integration of 60,000 Native Americans into the Anglo-American culture and American citizenship.  (McCool 6)

First page of the Dawes Act. This image is in the public domain. Credit:

The number of Native American citizens would gradually increase, but the issue would be mostly settled in 1924 with the passage of the General Citizenship Act. This law extended United States citizenship to all Native Americans that remained non-citizens, though the history of North Carolina’s Eastern Band of Cherokee demonstrates how hallow this declaration ultimately was. (Frizzell 225)

Browse documents from Eastern Band Cherokee history.