While the election of Kamala Harris to vice president is historic, she isn’t the first person of color to hold the position. The first was actually Charles Curtis, who took office nearly a century ago.
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Curtis was a member of the Kaw Nation who served as Herbert Hoover’s vice president from 1929 to 1933, and he has a complicated historical legacy. Curtis supported women’s voting rights, child labor laws and the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act. At the same time, he promoted assimilationist policies that harmed many Native Americans. One of his most significant impacts on U.S. policy is the Curtis Act of 1898, which weakened Native governments and helped break up Indigenous reservations.
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Growing Up in Kansas
Curtis was born in Topeka in 1860, one year before the Kansas Territory became the 34th state. Around age three, his mother died and his father joined the Union Army to fight in the Civil War. He lived at various times with his non-Native paternal grandparents and his Native maternal grandparents, Louis and Julie Pappan Gonville, who lived on the Kaw reservation in Kansas. As a young boy, he became known for winning races as a horse jockey.
Around 1873, when Louis and Julie were moving with the Kaw Nation to the Indian Territory in the current state of Oklahoma, Curtis planned to go with them. But his grandmother dissuaded him from joining them.
“His grandmother basically just says, ‘You’re bound for more important things,’” says Kent Blansett, a professor of Indigenous studies and history at the University of Kansas who is a Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Shawnee and Potawatomi descendant from the Blanket, Panther and Smith families. Blansett notes that Curtis’ grandmother wasn’t telling Curtis to turn away from his people, but to help his people by taking another path.
Curtis followed his grandmother’s advice and stayed in Topeka, becoming a lawyer and a politician. His Native heritage, something white politicians and journalists often referred to disparagingly, was public knowledge during his entire political career. In 1884, he won an elected seat as the Shawnee County attorney. Eight years later, he won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives as a Republican.
The Curtis Act Built on the the Dawes Act
It was in the House that Curtis introduced “An Act for the Protection of the People of Indian Territory,” commonly known as the Curtis Act of 1898. This act built on the Dawes Act of 1887, which had introduced the policy of “allotment.” Under this policy, the U.S. government forcibly broke up Native American reservations—where land and resources were communally shared—into privately-held properties. Native people who couldn’t afford to maintain their “allotments” lost them, allowing white Americans to buy the land and move into what was once a reservation.
The Curtis Act forced allotments onto the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole nations (known to white Americans as the “Five Civilized Tribes”), who had been exempt from the Dawes Act. This allowed white Americans to take over more of the five nations’ territory, setting the stage for the incorporation of Oklahoma into the U.S. as a state. The act also called for the dissolution of Native governments, asserting the U.S. government’s sovereignty over theirs.
“The Curtis Act was something that caused irrevocable damage,” Blansett says. “Even years later, [Curtis] would do a radio show with the famous Cherokee Will Rogers in the 1930s, and Will got booed for having Curtis on. Because in Oklahoma, Cherokees especially couldn’t stand what the Curtis Act did [to the Cherokee nation].”
So why had Curtis, one of the first Native congressmen, sponsored the act in the first place? Colonization led him to believe “that assimilation and acculturation was inevitable for Native peoples,” Blansett says. “It’s kind of impressed upon him that our traditions were something that could possibly be holding us back [from full citizenship], and this was a very popular sentiment at the time”—though Blansett notes “it’s not to excuse some of the things that he did and/or didn’t do in that office.”
Curtis went on to be a U.S. Senator and then, in 1929, the first person of color to serve as vice president. He and President Herbert Hoover didn’t have a close relationship, and many Americans had the impression that Curtis didn’t really have a role in the White House. In any case, Curtis’ vice presidency was overshadowed by Hoover’s disastrous response to the stock market crash and the Great Depression.
During the 1932 election, Hoover campaign slogans like “Play Safe with Hoover,” “We Are Turning the Corner” or “Don’t Change Now” did little to inspire public confidence in his administration; and Hoover and Curtis lost in a landslide to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Curtis continued working in politics by becoming chairman of the Republican senatorial campaign committee in 1935. He died the next year at age 76, leaving behind a complex political legacy.