A Reprint: America was Shamed Into Giving Indians Citizenship

This article first appeared in the Billings Gazette on June 2, 1999. I had been in the newsroom for about a year as a police reporter, but there was a lot of room for an enterprising and curious reporter who wasn’t afraid of screwing up from time to time, which I certainly did.  And yet… I’m sure glad I had fun reporting stories like this, which I turned up while searching for another story about an effort by one school district in northern Montana to keep Indians from voting. I’ll keep looking for the other story. In the meantime, here’s this:

Joseph Oklahombi, right. Photo courtesy of the Oklahoma Historical Society.

It wasn’t marches in the streets or boycotts that won U.S. citizenship for Native Americans 75 years ago.

It was national embarrassment, sparked by one man’s act of heroism in World War I, that pushed the United States to grant citizenship to Native Americans, said MSU-Billings Native American studies professor Jeffrey Sanders.

The story goes like this: Joseph Oklahombi, a full-blooded Choctaw from Bismarck, N.D., and a soldier in the U.S. Army, was one of a large number of Native Americans who volunteered for World War I.

Before 1924, Native Americans could become citizens in some instances if they were honorably discharged from the military, or if they sold their allotted reservation land.

In 1917 Oklahombi went through the German lines in France, dodged barbed-wire and overpowered a machine gun nest, Sanders said. He then single-handedly captured 171 German soldiers.

For that and for other acts of bravery, France awarded him the nation’s highest military honor.

“You see, he had not yet been discharged, so he was not yet a citizen. When that fact got out, it was extremely embarrassing to the United States,” Sanders said.

Over the next seven years, a small group of politicians on the East Coast lobbied for citizenship for the nation’s Native Americans. In 1924, the time was right, and a bill came through Congress and the Senate on the coattails of another, more controversial bill. The other bill would limit immigration from Asian countries.

In the Billings Gazette on June 2, 1924 – the day President Coolidge signed the Indian Citizenship Act – there was no mention of the act. Instead, the headlines were dominated by the trial of Nathan Leopold Jr. and Richard Loeb.Two days earlier, the two sons of Chicago millionaires had confessed to murdering a 13-year-old boy.

Farm aid was also a big issue in June, 75 years ago, but nowhere in the paper, or in the next week’s worth of papers, was there a mention of the act that gave citizenship to “all non-citizen Indians born within the territorial limits of the United States.”

The 75th anniversary of the citizenship act has also received little attention, both on Montana’s reservations and off, said Gail Small, the founder and director of Native Action, a nonprofit organization trying to increase Native American voter participation across the northern Great Plains.

On the reservations, the date is sensitive because it brings up feelings of anger and frustration.

“Why Indians were not automatically citizens is still questioned by many,” Small said, adding that discrimination against Native Americans is still a very real thing.

“Indian people and their tribal governments remain an anomaly in the political system in this country. We don’t really fit in very well as dual citizens or as tribal government.”

Small said Native Americans are still in political limbo.

“Indian tribes and our homelands are not considered countries, states or truly sovereign nations,” she said.

So although Native Americans received the legal right to vote from the federal government 75 years ago, Small said the fight is still on for equal representation.

Sanders agreed but said in the last 10 years, partly as a result of work by Small’s organization, Native Americans have become an important swing vote in statewide elections.

“When Pat Williams won his last election, he won by the number of Indian voters in the state,” Sanders said. “You can’t exactly say it’s a direct correlation, but I think it would be fair to say the Indian vote can win elections and its influence will continue to grow.”

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