Denial of Sovereignty

American Indian voting rights, as a concept, is not as simple as “a group of people fighting for the right to vote” (like, for example, women). As we have read, American Indians were living on this land before European settlers decided to claim it as theirs. Why, then, would American Indians have fought for the right to be included in “American” society? Most didn’t.

The history of “voting rights” for American Indians would be more accurately named “the historical struggle of American Indian nations to preserve their sovereignty The ability and authority to self-govern without interference and humanity, which required direct legal interactions with the United States.”   

Sovereignty and Citizenship Denied

When the United States Constitution was ratified in 1787, American Indians were the only racial/ethnic group mentioned.  However, while the Constitution recognized the existence of American Indians as a distinct group, it did not recognize them as an autonomous self-governing, independent state. This meant that Indian Nations were not only denied sovereignty over their own lands but were also denied U.S. citizenship and voting rights.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, federal and state governments relied on this flimsy Constitutional recognition when determining their rights to citizenship and voting. It essentially allowed the government to get away with unfair treatment.

Eighty years later, the Civil Rights Act of 1866 defined citizenship to include then and former slaves, and gave all citizens equal protection under the law and the 14th amendment A constitutional amendment created to make sure citizenship rights under the Civil Rights Act of 1866 would not be easily overturned in the future were created to legally acknowlege African Americans as citizens after the Civil War. This act did not include American Indians in its definition of “citizens.” The Civil Rights Act of 1866 stated, “All persons born in the United States, and not subject to any foreign powers, excluding Indians not taxed, are hereby declared to be citizens of the United States,” (emphasis added).

This language would be key as American Indians worked to affirm their rights in the 19th and 20th centuries.