Assimilation and Citizenship

In the cases where American Indians did wish to become citizens of the United States, the struggle for recognition and voting rights was never easy, and was often quite contradictory.


In 1817, people of the Cherokee tribe were the first to be recognized as United States citizens. By 1831, however, the Cherokee lost this recognition when the Supreme Court held that American Indians were a group dependent on the United States Federal Government.  

This ruling really cemented the “in-between” status of American Indian tribes as neither independent, sovereign nations nor as part of the United States with equal rights as white men, which included the right to vote and to have a say in the laws that affected their lives.

In 1856, Attorney General Caleb Cushing stated that American Indians were “subjects” of the United States, meaning that even though they had been born within the borders of the newly formed United States they did not have automatic citizenship.

This stance was reaffirmed in the 1884 Supreme Court case Elk v. Wilkins after Winnebago Indian John Elk tried to register to vote but was denied.

When the case reached the Supreme Court, it ruled that Elk was not “subject to the jurisdiction of the United States at birth” despite the fact that Elk lived off-reservation and had assimilated The process by which an individual’s or group’s language and culture come to resemble another group, often a more dominant or colonizing group into white culture.

Forced Assimilation

It’s important to highlight that “assimilated” meant “fitting in with white culture.”  To assimilate, Indian people were expected and/or forced to give up important cultural practices, language, dress, education, beliefs and community in order to fit in with the European settlers.

For example, native children were routinely stolen from their communities and forced to attend white boarding schools where they often faced harsh punishment if they refused to speak English or to cut their hair.  

Why was assimilation a requirement for citizenship? During this time period, American Indians were widely believed by whites to be members of an inferior race and were therefore not entitled to citizenship, a view held well into the 20th century. The same tactic was used with African slaves; if one group of people is convinced that another is “less than human,” it’s much easier for the first group to be indifferent toward — or even join in with — brutality or unfairness toward the second group.


Federal policy towards American Indians near the end of the 19th century foreshadowed coming events in the 20th century for American Indian citizenship and voting rights.

In 1887, the Dawes Act broke up on-reservation Indian land held collectively and offered allotments to individual American Indians. As another method to “encourage” assimilation, the Dawes Act allowed an avenue to citizenship for Indian people who accepted allotment and disassociated themselves from “traditional” tribal life.

In 1906, the Burke Act amended the Dawes Act and required the federal government to set or determine the “competence” or capability of individual Indians before granting them the title to their allotted land.

This served as a way for the federal government to prevent American Indian citizenship and its accompanying rights (like voting) as the act also required a 25-year probationary period before citizenship would be granted.