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100 years ago, Indigenous people were granted U.S. citizenship by law


Today is the 100th anniversary of the Indian Citizenship Act, which granted U.S. citizenship to Native Americans. But it's not celebrated by many Indigenous people because not all of them wanted citizenship. What they wanted was self-determination, and they're fighting for their full citizenship rights and their sovereignty. NPR's Sandhya Dirks reports.

SANDHYA DIRKS, BYLINE: To understand what the Indian Citizenship Act meant, you have to know what was happening to Native people at the time. Maggie Blackhawk is a law professor at NYU, and she's from the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe. She says the late 19th century was known as the reservation era.

MAGGIE BLACKHAWK: Which is a time when the United States government essentially built detention camps on the homelands of Native peoples that were promised to them by treaty.

DIRKS: There was a separate system of laws just for Native people.

BLACKHAWK: And those laws criminalized religious practice, a traditional family structure, political organization, and dissent.

DIRKS: She says the U.S. seized Native newspapers that were critical of the government. Native children were taken from their families and sent to boarding schools where abuse was rampant. Indigenous people needed immediate protection, and in the 1920s, on the heels of women's suffrage, citizenship was the best available option, even if many wanted self-determination, not assimilation.

BLACKHAWK: We understand that the United States has always been an empire. It is not anathema or antithetical within our constitutional system to have someone who is a citizen and colonized.

DIRKS: Blackhawk says Native people were granted dual citizenship, citizens of America and citizens of their Native nations. But in some cases, it took decades for them to actually get the right to vote in U.S. elections. Jaqueline De Leon is a voting rights attorney with the Native American Rights Fund. She's a member of the Isleta Pueblo.

JAQUELINE DE LEON: We recognize that citizenship was conferred, at times over the objection of tribal nations and people, and that there was a fear that this citizenship would undermine tribal sovereignty.

DIRKS: She says that's part of the reason she's approaching this anniversary, not as a celebration, but as a reflection.

DE LEON: We come to it in present day, seeing this citizenship as a continuing broken promise. American citizenship comes with the right to vote. But across Indian country, we do not have that full right.

DIRKS: Poverty, poor roads, lack of access to transportation means that many Native people have difficulty getting to polling places, which can be as far as 100 miles away from a reservation. Some states require an address to vote. Many who live on reservations don't have addresses.

DE LEON: That is a modern day literacy test, and that is the level of vote denial that we're seeing in Indian country.

DIRKS: De Leon says there are some attempts to change that, like the Native American Voting Rights Act. It was proposed in Congress in 2021, but never passed. Native people largely vote Democrat. In a swing state like Arizona, they helped Biden win the 2020 presidential election. But this focus on voting feels increasingly empty to Janene Yazzie.

JANENE YAZZIE: Every time the election season comes around, and there's all this pressure on the Native vote to come and save democracy. It's getting infuriating, actually.

DIRKS: Yazzie is from the Navajo Nation and is a member of the activist organization Indian Collective. She says, what is the point of citizenship today if it's just the right to vote in a political system that doesn't really represent Native people's interests or ideals.

YAZZIE: Indigenous peoples - we don't have in our language a word for rights in the way that is translatable to the system, let alone civil rights, right?

DIRKS: To her, the term civil rights is only necessary to describe rights that have been denied. She says many Native languages frame it differently than rights.

YAZZIE: All of our peoples, despite our diversity and linguistic differences, we have a word for responsibilities.

DIRKS: She says this anniversary is a time to remember native people's responsibilities - to each other and the world.

Sandhya Dirks, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sandhya Dirks is the race and equity reporter at KQED and the lead producer of On Our Watch, a new podcast from NPR and KQED about the shadow world of police discipline. She approaches race and equity not as a beat, but as a fundamental lens for all investigative and explanatory reporting.