Ninety years ago, the U.S. Congress granted American Indians the ironic right to become citizens of their own land.
On June 2, 1924, Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act, in part to recognize the Native Americans who had fought in World War I. It took a few decades more before every state obeyed this law.
But the Indian Citizenship Act was designed not so much to grant equal rights to Native Americans as it was to further assimilate the Indian into American society.
Prior to it, the U.S. government had established the reservation system (herding tribes onto some of the most desolate lands) and engaged in actions that were designed to wipe out American Indian identity. These actions targeted indigenous languages, ceremonies, cultures and a long-held connection to the land.
Boarding school mission
American Indian children were forced into boarding schools whose mission was to “civilize the savages” at all costs. By removing Indian children from their tribal families and homelands, the U.S. government hoped to blend them into white society and thus ensure the end of future Indian generations.
Other U.S. federal assimilation policies included swinging the gates wide open for land grabbers. The Dawes Act of 1887 was, in legislative print, an attempt to privatize Indian land and turn tribal people into farmers. In the decades to follow, American Indian people would lose millions more acres to white settlers and corporate exploiters of natural resources.
Three decades after the Indian Citizenship Act, the federal government launched the Indian Relocation Program. Lured by a free bus or train ticket, the promise of housing and decent-paying jobs, American Indians left their reservations on what proved to be a pipe dream to most. In cities like Los Angeles, Chicago and Cleveland, the program left many homeless and in deeper poverty than they had known back home.
Despite all these efforts to assimilate the Indian, the U.S. government could not wipe out Indian nationhood. Tribal sovereignty, the cornerstone of Indian identity, remains intact today. Tribes remain ever vigilant in their right to deal with the federal government, states and local municipalities on a government-to-government basis. And most Indians prefer their tribal identity. We would rather live as immigrants in our own country than fully assimilate.
Even today, 90 years after the Indian Citizenship Act, we are often treated as second-class citizens.
We still have to contend with stereotypes of savages and with white violence — including rape — that often goes unprosecuted and unpunished. American Indian women are raped more than twice as often as other women, and the vast majority of the perpetrators are white men who rarely are convicted.
In that sense, we are not yet full and equal citizens of the United States.