Editor’s note: Voters this year will elect the 45th president of the United States. This is the 30th in a series of 44 stories exploring past presidents’ attitudes toward Native Americans, challenges and triumphs regarding tribes, and the federal laws and Indian policies enacted during their terms in office.
With a sweep of his pen in June 1924, John Calvin Coolidge granted automatic citizenship to all Native Americans born in the United States.
Afterward, Coolidge, wearing a dark suit and grasping a hat in his hands, posed for a photo outside the White House with four tribal leaders—three of whom were dressed in traditional attire. Although the photograph likely was taken several months after Coolidge signed the Indian Citizenship Act it came to symbolize a new era in federal-Indian relations.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.
President Calvin Coolidge with four Osage Indians after Coolidge signed the bill granting Indians full citizenship.
“This act acknowledged what the Constitution already said,” said Rushad Thomas, program and editorial associate at the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation. “Anyone born on American soil gets citizenship. This enfranchised Native Americans, giving them voting rights and all other rights and privileges of citizenship.”
Also known as the Snyder Act, the Indian Citizenship Act, sought to reward Indians for service to their country while also assimilating them into mainstream American society. Because two-thirds of the indigenous population had already gained citizenship through marriage, military service or land allotments, the act simply extended citizenship to “all noncitizen Indians born within the territorial limits of the United States.”
Passage of the act came partly in response to Indians’ overwhelming service during World War I. About 10,000 Indians enlisted in the military and served during the war, despite not being recognized as U.S. citizens.
Congress in 1919 extended citizenship to Indian veterans. Four and a half years later, the government recognized all Indians as citizens—50 years after the 14th amendment had already granted citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States.”
Prior to 1924, Indians were systematically barred from the process of naturalization, Thomas said. The Indian Citizenship Act was different from previous legislation in that it conferred citizenship without mandating any prerequisites.
“In those days, any other person who was not a citizen could apply and take the oath without much trouble, but that didn’t apply to Natives,” Thomas said. “They had second-class status when it came to their relationship with the United States. This act was a symbol of the improved relationship.”
The act also guaranteed to Indians other civil rights already enjoyed by other minorities, including the right to vote as spelled out in the 15th amendment, which declares that the vote shall not be denied “on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude.”
Yet the act’s diction proved ambiguous, sparking questions about sovereignty and dual citizenship, Thomas said. It states that the granting of citizenship “shall not in any manner impair or otherwise affect the right of any Indian to tribal or other property,” language that failed to address how Indians would operate as citizens of both the United States and their respective tribes. Further, state laws governed voting rights, and for decades after Coolidge signed the federal act, states refused to comply with it, routinely denying Indians the vote.
Although the Indian Citizenship Act was one of the most important pieces of legislation for Natives, it received very little publicity at the time—and Coolidge himself failed even to mention it in his 1929 autobiography.
Born in Vermont in 1872, Coolidge was an attorney and politician who earned a reputation for promoting equality and speaking out against racial hatred. He served as mayor of Northampton, Massachusetts, a state senator and governor of Massachusetts before being elected as vice president of the United States in 1920.
A member of the Republican Party, Coolidge took over as president in August 1923 after Warren Harding’s sudden death. He completed the term and was re-elected to a full term in 1924, serving a total of five and a half years in office.
During the summer of 1927, Coolidge became the first sitting president to be adopted by an Indian tribe when he and his wife, Grace, vacationed for three months in South Dakota. When the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe learned the President would be in the area, Chief Chauncey Yellow Robe suggested he be adopted, urging his people to extend “a united welcome and genuine western hospitality.” Afterward, Coolidge posed with the Sioux for a photo, in which he is wearing a feathered headdress.
During the summer of 1927, Coolidge became the first sitting president to be adopted by an Indian tribe. He also began the desecration at Mount Rushmore.
Coolidge’s stay in South Dakota also coincided with the opening of work at Mount Rushmore. In August 1927, Coolidge dedicated the cornerstone of a monument that would boast 60-foot sculptures of the heads of four presidents, and claimed its location was significant.
“Here in the heart of the continent, on the side of a mountain which probably no white man had ever beheld in the days of Washington, in territory which was acquired by the action of Jefferson, which remained an unbroken wilderness beyond the days of Lincoln, which was especially beloved by Roosevelt, the people of the future will see history and art combined to portray the spirit of patriotism,” he said.
When Coolidge took office in 1923, he inherited the Advisory Council on Indian Affairs, already tasked with examining federal programs dealing with Indians. The council, also known as the Committee of One Hundred, met briefly in December 1923 and recommended an in-depth investigation into life on Indian reservations.
Commissioned by the Interior Department, funded by John D. Rockefeller and headed by social scientist Lewis Meriam, the investigation spanned eight months and included visits to more than 90 reservations. The final report, “The Problem of Indian Administration” (or simply the Meriam Report), was published in February 1928 and described the “deplorable conditions” on reservations.
“An overwhelming majority of the Indians are poor—even extremely poor,” the report states. “They are not adjusted to the economic and social system of the dominant white civilization.”
The report goes on to detail alarming disease and mortality rates, crowded schools and stark poverty. Nearly half of all Indians survived on a per capita income between $100 and $200 per year, the report found. The national average was $1,300.
The report also concluded that the government’s widespread assimilation policies including the allotment program were failures and had, in fact, caused many of the existing problems. Researchers ultimately recommended that Indians be “fitted to live within the dominant society without being obliterated by it.”
In his final message to Congress, 10 months after the Meriam Report was published, Coolidge pointed to the “intensive study” of Indian Affairs and praised the Interior Department for increasing services.
“The government’s responsibility to the American Indian has been acknowledged by several annual increases in appropriations to fulfill its obligations to them and hasten the time when federal supervision of their affairs may be properly and safely terminated,” he said. “A complete participation by the Indian in our economic life is the end to be desired.”
Coolidge left office in 1929 and was succeeded by Herbert Hoover. He died in 1933 at age 60.