Indian Citizenship Act

The Indian Citizenship Act conferred U.S. citizenship on all Native Americans born within territorial limits of the United States, thus encouraging the dissolution of tribal nations.

Summary of Event

American Indians hold a unique position in U.S. society and law, so the question of their citizenship has been complicated. By the time of the Revolutionary War, it was established practice for European colonial powers to negotiate treaties with American Indian tribes, as they were considered to be independent nations, and this policy was continued by the United States. The U.S. Constitution regards tribes as distinct political units, separate and apart from the United States, although not foreign nations, so as long as American Indians were members of tribes or nations that negotiated treaties with the U.S. government as semi-independent political units, they could not be considered U.S. citizens. Two significant court rulings made it clear that an act of Congress would be required to grant citizenship to American Indians. [kw]Indian Citizenship Act (June 2, 1924)
[kw]Citizenship Act, Indian (June 2, 1924)
[kw]Act, Indian Citizenship (June 2, 1924)
Native Americans;citizenship
Citizenship laws
Indian Citizenship Act (1924)
[g]United States;June 2, 1924: Indian Citizenship Act[06080]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;June 2, 1924: Indian Citizenship Act[06080]
[c]Indigenous peoples’ rights;June 2, 1924: Indian Citizenship Act[06080]
Dawes, Henry Laurens
Doolittle, James Rood
Elk, John
Snyder, Homer P.

The issue of whether American Indians were citizens came into question when the Fourteenth Amendment Fourteenth Amendment (U.S. Constitution) to the Constitution was adopted in 1868. The amendment states that “all persons born or naturalized within the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the State wherein they reside.” This amendment was intended to grant citizenship to newly emancipated slaves; however, there was a question as to whether it covered American Indians as well. In 1868, Senator James Rood Doolittle of Wisconsin led the opposition to the extension of citizenship to American Indians under the Fourteenth Amendment. Many tribes were not yet settled on reservations and tribal wars were taking place in the Great Plains, and Doolittle felt strongly that Indians were not yet prepared for citizenship. There was considerable confusion in the Senate as to whether Indians living with tribal connections were subject to the jurisdiction of the United States. It was decided that Fourteenth Amendment rights did not extend to American Indians when the Senate Committee on the Judiciary ruled, in 1870, that tribal Indians were not granted citizenship under the Fourteenth Amendment because they were not subject to the jurisdiction of the United States in the sense meant by the amendment.

Once this matter was settled, issues arose over the status of American Indians who voluntarily severed relationships with their tribes. John Elk, an American Indian who had terminated relations with his tribe and lived and worked in Omaha, Nebraska, sought to register to vote in a local election. Elk met all the requirements to vote in the state of Nebraska, but he was refused the right to vote because election officials, and later the courts, ruled that as an American Indian, he was not a U.S. citizen. In 1884, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the lower court decisions, ruling in Elk v. Wilkins
Elk v. Wilkins (1884) that an Indian born as a member of a tribe, although he disassociated himself from that tribe and lived among whites, was not a citizen and therefore was ineligible to vote. This ruling indicated it would take a specific act of Congress to naturalize American Indians.

By the 1880’s, many persons in the United States sought to end tribal sovereignty, individualize Indians (end their status as tribal members), and grant citizenship to them so they eventually would be amalgamated into the general population. As a means toward this end, Senator Henry Laurens Dawes of Massachusetts, a leader in reform legislation for American Indian issues, sponsored the General Allotment Act, General Allotment Act (1887) which became law in 1887. This act carried provisions for citizenship as a reward for Indians who would leave their tribes and adopt “the habits of civilized life.” In part, this meant that American Indians had to accept small plots of land, successfully farm their land, and learn the English language. Provisions in the General Allotment Act meant that eventually every American Indian could become a citizen, except for members of tribes specifically excluded in legislation. Indians in Oklahoma were originally excluded from these provisions, but in 1901, a congressional act granted Indians in Oklahoma Territory citizenship. By 1917, through a variety of federal statutes, as many as two-thirds of all Native Americans were U.S. citizens. However, U.S. involvement in World War I World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];Native Americans reopened the debate about citizenship for American Indians as a whole.

American Indians actively supported the war effort by working to increase food production, by purchasing war bonds, by contributing to the Red Cross, and, most dramatically, by enlisting in the armed forces. Between 6,000 and 10,000 Indians, many of whom were not citizens, enlisted for military service. In return for their service to the country, Representative Homer P. Snyder of New York authored the Veterans Citizenship Bill, which became law on November 6, 1919. This law granted any American Indian who had received an honorable discharge from U.S. military service during World War I the right to apply for citizenship with no restrictions on the right to tribal property. Still, by 1920, some 125,000 American Indians were not citizens. Many people in the United States believed that all Indians should be rewarded for their patriotism during World War I, and Snyder introduced a bill in Congress that would make U.S. citizens of all remaining noncitizen Indians born in the United States. Political maneuvering began at once.

Many people favored citizenship for Indians as a way to sever the legal relationship between the tribes and the federal government, and many American Indians were aware that citizenship could alter their tribal governments and possibly dissolve the reservation land base. In particular, full-blooded members of many tribes were fearful that citizenship would end tribal sovereignty, bring them under state jurisdiction, and ultimately destroy tribal life and values. Compromise was required to resolve these conflicting views. In January, 1924, Congressman Snyder introduced House Resolution 6355, authorizing the secretary of the interior to grant citizenship to all American Indians but ensuring that “the granting of such citizenship shall not in any manner impair or otherwise affect the right of any Indian to tribal or other property.” The bill was approved by Congress, and the Indian Citizenship Act, signed into law on June 2, 1924, by President Calvin Coolidge, made Native Americans both citizens of the United States and persons with tribal relations.


Ultimately, citizenship had little impact on the lives of most American Indians. The Bureau of Indian Affairs continued its policy of treating tribal members as wards of the government and administering affairs for American Indian citizens. The right to vote was denied to many American Indians until the 1960’s, because the states had the power to determine voter eligibility and many did not consider tribal members living on reservations to reside in the states. Since that time, federal protections such as those embodied in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 have ensured that American Indians have the right to vote in federal, state, and local elections, and, as members of tribes, they also can vote in tribal elections. Native Americans;citizenship
Citizenship laws
Indian Citizenship Act (1924)

Further Reading

  • Debo, Angie. A History of the Indians in the United States. 1970. Reprint. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989. Comprehensive, in-depth historical survey of the Indians of the United States emphasizes tribal relations with the U.S. government. Includes index.
  • Hauptman, Laurence M. Tribes and Tribulations: Misconceptions About American Indians and Their Histories. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995. Collection of essays seeks to set straight a number of common misunderstandings about American Indians. Includes discussion of the topic of Indians’ U.S. citizenship.
  • Newton, Nell Jessup, ed. Cohen’s Handbook of Federal Indian Law. Rev. ed. New York: Matthew Bender, 2005. The most complete sourcebook on American Indian legal issues available.
  • Olson, James S., and Raymond Wilson. Native Americans in the Twentieth Century. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1984. Interprets major trends, events, and attitudes affecting American Indian peoples, including the myriad issues involved in the citizenship debate.
  • Prucha, Francis Paul. The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians. 2 vols. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995. Seminal work addresses federal-tribal relationships and the development of American Indian policy. Traces the controversies surrounding citizenship for Indians.
  • Smith, Michael T. “The History of Indian Citizenship.” In The American Indian Past and Present. 2d ed. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1981. Traces the major factors that made it difficult for American Indians to obtain citizenship.
  • Washburn, Wilcomb E. Red Man’s Land/White Man’s Law. 2d ed. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995. Discusses the American Indian in the complex federal-tribal context, including information on citizenship. Features footnotes and index.

Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock

First Conference of the Society of American Indians

Indian Reorganization Act