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100 YEARS OF NATIVE AMERICAN U.S. CITIZENSHIP

100 YEARS

This election year marks 100 years since Native Americans were conferred U.S. Citizenship. Despite being Indigenous to the country, it wasn’t until the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act, also known as the Snyder Act, was signed into law by President Calvin Coolidge that all Native peoples born in the U.S. were conferred U.S. citizenship. This was the first time U.S. citizenship for Native Americans was not conditioned on military service or assimilation, but rather was the right of all Native Americans, including those who lived on tribal land. Importantly, citizens of Tribal nations did not need to relinquish one status for the other, but could retain both.

U.S. President Calvin Coolidge with four members of the Osage Nation after signing the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924. (Library of Congress)

In 1955 activist Lucy Nicolar Poolaw (Penobscot) became the first Native on a reservation in Maine to cast a vote. (Bangor Daily News)

MIXED SUPPORT

Support for the Indian Citizenship Act among tribes was mixed, with some tribes regarding it as a threat to their separate sovereign status. Stoking more suspicion, the act did not automatically grant the right to vote for all Native American citizens. It took another 40 years of relentless struggle, often led by disenfranchised Native American veterans, before this fundamental right was secured in Indigenous communities across the country.

POWER OF THE NATIVE VOTE

Today, Native Americans make up critical voting blocs in swing states like Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Montana, and Nevada. And in many local jurisdictions, Native Americans can swing outcomes in school boards, county commissions, water districts, and other offices that control everyday decisions that impact our lives. The fight for universal access to vote is not over. Many Native people still face unreasonable barriers to accessing election services while legislators continue to pass laws designed to disenfranchise Native voters. This centennial marks a new opportunity to build on generations of hard earned progress by using our hard won right to vote and ensuring all Native Americans can do the same. We have benefited from the progress of the last century, and now we hold the power to shape the next.

JUNE 2, 2024

NATIONAL DAY OF ACTION AND REFLECTION

Download the Press Release

Mark the centennial of the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act by using your power and taking action.

  1. Share the asset and copy
  2. Check your voter registration
  3. Support the efforts to pass the Native American Voting Rights Act (NAVRA)

We will provide a path towards sovereignty by exercising both citizenships – at the ballot box and through organizing Native grassroots political power to achieve self-determination and sovereignty.

Judith LeBlancExecutive Director of Native Organizers Alliance

WHAT DOES CITIZENSHIP MEAN TO YOU
(TRIBAL AND/OR U.S.)?

Responses may be shared on the IllumiNative, NOA, or NARF social media channels or website to encourage reflection and discussion about Native American citizenship.

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IMPORTANT FIGURES

IN THE FIGHT FOR NATIVE RIGHTS

TIMELINE

FROM CITIZENSHIP TO VOTING RIGHTS

1870s–early 1900s

  • 1871—Indian Appropriations Act of 1871: In 1871, the U.S. ceased making treaties with tribes, reflecting a change in federal policy as Congress passed a law discontinuing treaty-making practices with Indian nations, leading to tribes losing recognition as independent nations and being legally designated as “wards” of the federal government.
  • 1887—General Allotment (Dawes) Act of 1887: The Dawes Act of 1887 allowed the U.S. government to claim and redistribute tribal lands in small parcels. Tribal citizens were granted U.S. citizenship in exchange for accepting land allotments, resulting in massive land loss for Tribal Nations. The Act also funded missionaries to reeducate American Indian children, sending them to schools to Christianize them and teach Euro-American culture.
  • 1919—Indian Citizenship Act of 1919: In recognition of their wartime service, Congress passed the Citizenship Act of 1919, granting citizenship to American Indian World War I veterans.

Indian Appropriations Act of 1871 (National Archives)

The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 grabs the spotlight in The Real American, a publication focused on Native perspectives (University of Washington)

1920s

  • 1924—Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 (Snyder Act): The Indian Citizenship Act, also known as the Snyder Act, granted full U.S. citizenship to all Native Americans born within the United States. This landmark legislation expanded citizenship beyond those who obtained it through military service or land allotment acts, while preserving Tribal citizenship and eventually leading to expanded rights, including the right to vote.

1940s

  • 1941-1944—World War II Draft: All Native men are required to register for the World War II draft, despite the fact that in many states they still cannot vote
  • 1945—Alaska Equal Rights Act of 1945: The Alaska Equal Rights Act of 1945, also known as the Anti-Discrimination Law, was the first state or territorial anti-discrimination statute in the United States in the 20th century. Signed on February 16, 1945, it aimed to combat racial discrimination in public spaces. The legislation was driven by the political activism of Alaska Native peoples, including prominent advocate Elizabeth Peratrovich.
  • 1948—Harrison v. Laveen – Voting Rights Victory: Harrison v. Laveen, a 1948 case before the Arizona Supreme Court, granted voting rights to members of the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, overturning a previous ruling that had barred American Indians from voting. Despite this victory, additional barriers like literacy tests and language challenges persisted, limiting the voting rights of many Native Americans in Arizona.
  • 1948—Porter v. Hall – Voting Rights for Native Americans in Arizona: In 1928, Peter Porter and Rudolph Johnson of the Gila River Indian Community were denied the right to vote, leading to the lawsuit Porter v. Hall, which was initially unsuccessful. However, following the Nationality Act of 1940 and Native Americans’ contributions in World War II, the Arizona Supreme Court overturned the case in 1948, securing voting rights for Native Americans in the state.
  • 1948—Trujillo v. Garley – Voting Rights for Native Americans in New Mexico: Miguel Trujillo, a WWII veteran and citizen of Isleta Pueblo in New Mexico, challenged the voting restrictions faced by Native Americans in 1948, leading to the landmark case Trujillo v. Garley, which removed legal barriers to Native American voting rights in the state.

Navajo Code Talkers Cpl. Henry Bake, Jr., and Pfc. George H. Kirk operate a portable radio near the front lines. (National Archives)

Alaska Governor Ernest Gruening (seated) signs the Anti-Discrimination Act of 1945 with witnesses including Elizabeth Peratrovich, president of the Alaska Native Sisterhood. (Alaska State Library, Alaska Territorial Govenors Photograph Collection)

The founding board of the American Indian Movement meets in Minneapolis. (American Indian Movement Interpretive Center)

1950s–1960s

  • 1954—Maine Suffrage for Native Americans Referendum: A voter referendum in Maine secures equal suffrage for Native Americans living on reservations. Native Americans in Maine still face challenges exercising their voting rights in state elections.
  • 1956—Allen v. Merrell – Voting Rights for Native Americans in Utah: After Utah became a state, a 1897 law barred Native Americans living on reservations from voting — claiming they were not state residents. In 1956, Ute citizen Preston Allen challenged this law in court but the Utah Supreme Court upheld it, fearing Native Americans might outnumber white voters. The law was amended before the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, finally allowing on-reservation Native Americans the right to vote.
  • 1968—American Indian Movement (AIM) is founded in Minneapolis: AIM activism began as a coalition of bold, visionary Native urban women leaders protesting police brutality. This movement quickly evolved into a prominent national organization, advocating confidently for treaty rights, urban Indian rights, and traditional rights, embodying the resilience and leadership of Native communities.

1970s

  • 1970—Native American Rights Fund (NARF) is founded: NARF quickly grew into a national organization providing much-needed, specialized legal assistance to Native American Tribes, organizations, and individuals. NARF is now the nation’s largest and oldest non-profit law firm dedicated to advancing Native American rights.
  • 1975—Congress enacts Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act: The Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act establishes a legal framework for tribes to exercise their right to govern and protect tribal citizens, lands, and resources.
  • 1978—American Indian Religious Freedom Act: Congress enacts the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, restoring essential civil liberties to Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians. This act empowers them to practice, protect, and preserve their traditional religious rights and cultural practices, ensuring access to sacred sites and the freedom to worship through traditional ceremonies.
  • 1978—Indian Child Welfare Act: Congress passes the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) to prevent the disproportionate removal of Native children from their communities, prioritize placement in Native homes, and promote tribal court involvement in custody proceedings, addressing cultural biases and safeguarding tribal sovereignty.

The Indian Child Welfare Act was established to protect the rights and cultural identity of Native children (Photo by Ansel Adams, National Archives)

President George Bush signing the NAGPRA act into law in 1990. (George H. Bush Presidential Library and Museum)

1980s–1990s

  • 1982—Merrion v. Jicarilla Apache Tribe: In Merrion v. Jicarilla Apache Tribe, the Supreme Court affirms that Indian tribes have the authority to levy taxes on non-Indians conducting business on reservations, recognizing this as an inherent power under tribal sovereignty.
  • 1990—Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA): NAGPRA, a federal law, mandates the return of Native American cultural items such as human remains, sacred objects, and funerary objects to lineal descendants, tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations by institutions receiving federal funding. 
  • 1990—Native American Languages Act: The Native American Languages Act rejects previous policies aimed at suppressing Native languages and affirms the rights of Native Americans to preserve, use, and develop their languages, recognizing the authority of tribes, governing bodies, and states to promote and give official status to Native American languages for their own governance purposes.

2010s

  • 2014—Native Voting Rights and Language Access Victory in Alaska: In Toyukak v. Dahlstrom, represented by the Native American Rights Fund, Alaska Native voters and Alaska Tribes successfully sued the State of Alaska, forcing it to comply with the language assistance provisions of the Voting Rights Act and the voting guarantees of the 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
  • 2015—Establishment of the Native American Voting Rights Coalition – The Native American Rights Fund establishes the Native American Voting Rights Coalition, comprised of the largest coalition of Native American voting rights organizations, advocates, and national organizations dedicated to advancing and protecting the Native American vote.
  • 2018—First Native American Women Elected to Congress: In November 2018, Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland made history by becoming the first Native American women elected to and sworn into Congress.
  • 2018—Peggy Flanagan (Tribal affiliation) elected as Lieutenant Governor of Minnesota: Peggy Flanagan was elected as Lieutenant Governor of Minnesota in November 2018 becoming the highest-ranking Native American woman in a statewide elected office.
  • 2019—Washington State’s Native American Voting Rights Act: Washington State legislature adopts the Native American Voting Rights Act (NAVRA), a legislation aimed at addressing barriers faced by Native American voters, allowing the use of tribal IDs for voter registration, empowering tribes to request placement of ballot boxes on reservations, and permitting the use of nontraditional residential addresses.

Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico) and Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kansas) celebrate at a reception in Washington, D.C., held in their honor as the first Native women in Congress. (Indianz.com)

Lt. Governor Peggy Flanagan is sworn in. (Photo by Lorie Shaull)

LeRoy Fairbanks, representing Leech Lake’s District 3, highlights land ownership on a map of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Reservation (MPR News)

Deb Haaland sworn in as Secretary of Interior (Department of Interior)

2020–2021

  • 2020—Voting Access Victory for Native Communities in North Dakota: In a significant victory for Native communities, North Dakota law allows Native Americans to vote using P.O. boxes—with a process to ensure validity and a commitment to provide official addresses for future elections. The change came after Brakebill v. Jaeger, where NARF represented eight Native Americans challenging the state’s voter ID law for violating state and federal constitutions and the Voting Rights Act. The 2020 settlement followed four years of litigation.
  • 2020—Voting Rights Report Released: The Native American Voting Rights Coalition releases Obstacles at Every Turn, Barriers to Political Participation Face by Native American Voters, Led by the Native American Rights Fund, this seminal report detailed the multiple barriers faced by Native voters and increased awareness around Native American GOTV efforts across the country.
  • 2020—Leech Lake Land Return: After years of partnership building, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe successfully reclaimed 11,760 acres of Indigenous land, originally taken by the U.S. government in 1948 without their consent. Collaborating with local stakeholders, including governments and utilities, Leech Lake reached a compromise leading to Congressional legislation certifying the return, marking a significant victory for Tribal sovereignty and land restitution.
  • 2020—Voting Rights victory in Montana: In a great victory for Native voters living in Montana, on September 25, 2020, a Montana court permanently struck down the Ballot Interference Prevention Act (BIPA), the state law that severely restricted the right to vote for Indigenous people living on rural reservations. This case, Western Native Voice v. Stapleton, was brought by a coalition of five Montana tribes represented by the Native American Rights Fund and Native led GOTV organizations.
  • 2020—Savanna’s Act and Not Invisible Act passed in Congress: Savanna’s Act and the Not Invisible Act passed in the House, addressing the issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples. Savanna’s Act establishes protocols for handling such cases and provides training and grants for law enforcement agencies, while the Not Invisible Act creates a joint advisory committee to combat violence against Native Americans.
  • 2021—Rep. Deb Haaland becomes first American Indian to hold a Cabinet position in U.S. history: Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.)(Laguna Pueblo), was nominated by President-elect Joe Biden to become the 54th Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, making her the first American Indian to hold a Cabinet post in U.S. history.
  • 2021—Zach Ducheneaux (Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe) becomes first Native American appointed Administrator of the USDA’s Farm Service Agency: Amidst a history of discrimination against Native peoples by the USDA, the appointment of Ducheneaux holds particular significance. Notably, the Farm Services Agency, under his leadership, oversees disaster relief and loan programs.

Mary Peltola makes history as the first Alaska Native sworn into Congress (Marc Lester/Anchorage Daily News)

On September 12, 2022, Lynn Malerba was sworn in as the Treasurer of the United States, becoming the first Native American to hold this position. (Manuel Balce Centa/AP)

2022

  • 2022—Native wins in Midterm Elections: 2022 saw a record number of Native American/Alaska Native political candidates running for federal, state and local office in midterm elections November 8. Out of 150 candidates, more than 85 won at the ballot box, among them:  Mary Peltola (Yup’ik) became the first Alaska Native elected to House of Representatives and Sharice Davids (Ho-Chunk) won a third term in the House of Representatives.  
  • 2022—Chief Mutáwi Mutáhash (Many Hearts) Marilynn “Lynn” Malerba becomes U.S. Treasurer: In June 2022 President Joe Biden nominated Chief Mutáwi Mutáhash (“Many Hearts”) Marilynn “Lynn” Malerba, the lifetime chief of the Mohegan Indian Tribe in Connecticut, to serve as U.S. treasurer. She now oversees the U.S. Mint, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and Fort Knox, home of the U.S. gold reserves, and is a key liaison with the Federal Reserve, America’s central bank.
  • 2022—Feds Acknowledge, Investigate Indian Boarding School Abuses: The U.S. Interior Department, led by Secretary Deb Haaland, found that 408 Indian boarding schools operated from 1819 to 1969, causing 500 student deaths and graves at 53 schools. The report calls for further investigation, addressing tribal health disparities, and supporting Indigenous language revitalization. In July, Haaland began the “Road to Healing Tour” to hear survivors’ stories and offer trauma support.
  • 2022—Racial slurs removed from U.S. Map: Secretary Haaland signed Secretarial Order 3404, declaring “sq—,” a historic term for Native American women, to be derogatory and setting up a task force to remove the word from 650 geographic features across the U.S.

2023

  • 2023—ICWA Upheld in Supreme Court: In 2022, the states of Texas, Louisiana and Indiana, as well as individual plaintiffs, challenged the constitutionality of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) in Haaland v. Brackeen. In an outpouring of support, an historic 497 Tribal Nations and 62 tribal and Native organizations (represented by the Native American Rights Fund), as well as 23 states and DC, 87 congress people, and 27 child welfare and adoption organizations, and many others signed on to 21 briefs submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court in favor of upholding ICWA. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the act in a 7-2 vote, June 15, 2023.
  • 2023—Court blocks discriminatory North Dakota voting map: A federal judge declares North Dakota’s legislative maps discriminatory towards Native voters, citing a violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). The Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, the Spirit Lake Tribe, and individual Native voters, represented by the Native American Rights Fund, bring forth the challenge, asserting that the maps undermine their representation in the democratic process.
  • 2023—New Mexico Voting Rights Act: Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham signed the New Mexico Voting Rights Act, enhancing voter protections, especially for Native Americans. The law includes automatic voter registration, voting rights restoration for former inmates, and secure ballot drop boxes.

Supporter from Virginia held a sign for ICWA during the Haaland v. Brackeen oral arguments in November 2022. (Jourdan Bennet-Begaye/ICT)

Today

  • 2024—Montana court once again strikes down laws that disenfranchise Native voters: The Montana Supreme Court ruled two state laws unconstitutional for hindering Native American voter participation, emphasizing the impact on those relying on Election Day registration and ballot assistance. Montana tribes, represented by the Native American Rights Fund, and Native GOTV organizations, were again determined to protect their voting rights after the substantively the same ballot assistance law had already been struck down in 2020.
  • Native American Voting Rights Act: The bipartisan Frank Harrison, Elizabeth Peratrovich, and Miguel Trujillo Native American Voting Rights Act of 2021 (NAVRA), introduced in August 2021, addresses unique challenges faced by Native American voters, aiming to establish consistent standards and protect their right to vote amidst geographic isolation, language barriers, and historic mistrust of government entities. Despite previous legislation, Native American voters still encounter obstacles, highlighting the urgent need for federal intervention to safeguard their rights and ensure equitable representation. Learn how you can support NAVRA.

Democracy is Native, and Native people will fight for the power it confers.

Jacqueline De LeónSenior Attorney for the Native American Rights Fund

IN PARTNERSHIP WITH


The Native Organizers Alliance (NOA) is dedicated to building the organizing capacity of tribes, organizers, and community groups for transformational policy change. It also provides a forum for Native leaders, organizers, and organizations to work in collaboration with each other and promote their work with non-Native national allies.

Learn more about NOA


The Native American Rights Fund (NARF) is the nation’s premier nonprofit 501(c)3 organization focused on guaranteeing that federal and state governments live up to their legal obligations to Native Americans. Since 1970, NARF has provided specialized legal assistance to Native American Tribal Nations, organizations, and individuals to assert and defend the most important Native rights.

Learn more about NARF’s voting rights work