“Bias and prejudice are attitudes
to be kept in hand, not attitudes to be voided.”
When Senator Kamala Harris was sworn in as Vice President last Wednesday, she made history as the first woman, first African American, and first person of South Asian heritage to become Vice President of the United States. But, she is not the first Vice President of color we’ve had to hold that office. That distinction belongs to Vice President Charles Curtis who was the first and only Native American Vice President sworn into office 92 years ago.
Prejudice against Native Americans was widespread at the time of the Curtis Vice Presidency. His climb to the office attests to his skillful navigation of the political system. It was also a story of how Native Americans viewed their communities and how they were forced to assimilate within a predominately white society and government.
Charles Curtis was born January 25, 1860, in Eugene, Kansas now known as North Topeka, Kansas. His white, Irish, English, Welch and Scots father was from a wealthy Topeka family while his mother was one-eighth each of Kansa Indian, of Osage Indian, of Potawatomi Indian. Curtis was a member of the Kaw Indian Nation which are a federally recognized Native American tribe in Oklahoma and parts of Kansas. They come from the central Midwestern United States. The Kaw tribe have also been known as the People of the South wind or People of water. Most of us don’t realize that the state of Kansas takes its name from the Kaw Indian people.
His mother died when he was just three years old and at the same time his father left to fight in the Civil War for the United States. Due to the lack of parental supervision, Curtis spent time living with both sets of grandparents and for eight years, he lived on the Kaw reservation where his first language was Kanza and French, he later learned English.
By 1873, the Kaw Nation, once millions of acres in area had dwindled to little more than a burial plot and the few 100 surviving Kaw members were being forcibly relocated South, which would become Oklahoma. The majority of the Kaw walked to their new locations which took about 17 days. During this relocation, a great many of the Kaw people got sick, contracted typhoid and even starved to death.
Thirteen year old Charles Curtis was expected to join the migration to Oklahoma but his Indian grandmother wanted what she believed was the best for her young grandson and commanded him to stay in Topeka with his white grandmother and to assimilate. Chances are, had Charles left Topeka for Oklahoma he may not have survived and we might never have heard of him.
Curtis learned to ride Indian ponies bareback and won a reputation as a “good and fearless rider.” His grandfather William Curtis had built a race track, and Charles rode in his first race. He soon became a full-fledged jockey and continued to ride until 1876. A fellow jockey described Curtis as “rather short and wiry” and “just another brush boy jockey,” explaining that eastern riders “called us brush boys because we rode in what would be called the sticks.”
As a winning jockey, Curtis was known throughout Kansas as “The Indian Boy.” His mounts made a lot of money for the local gamblers and prostitutes who bet on him, and he recalled that after one race a madam bought him “a new suit of clothes, boots, hat and all,” and had a new jockey suit made for him; others bought him candy and presents. “I had never been so petted in my life and I liked it,” Curtis reminisced.
After studying law and working for a Topeka attorney for several years, Curtis passed the Kansas bar exam in 1881 and was admitted to the bar. At 34 years old, he married Annie Elizabeth Baird on November 27, 1884. They had three children, Permelia Jeannette Curtis, Henry King Curtis, and Leona Virginia Curtis.
From 1885 to 1889 he was an attorney for Shawnee county in Topeka, Kansas.
His long political career began in 1893 to 1899, with a stint in the U.S. House of Representatives. He then served as a U.S. Senator from Kansas from 1907-13 and again from 1915-29.
During his political career, he served on numerous committees and authored many pieces of legislation. He was a staunch believer in laws and was quoted as saying, “If you don’t want the laws enforced, then don’t vote for me.” He understood that the federal policies he championed were conceived on the Indians’ behalf.
He was one of the early champions of women’s equal rights. Growing up in an Indian nation, he experienced how woman always had leadership roles and were often the backbone of the tribes. Senator Curtis proposed one of the first woman’s equal rights amendments in the country.
One of the largest pieces of legislation he brought forth was also one of the most controversial throughout Indian Country. Curtis devoted much of his attention to his service on the Committee on Indian Affairs, where he drafted the ‘Curtis Act’ in 1898. Entitled, An Act for the Protection of the People of the Indian Territory and for Other Purposes, the Curtis Act actually overturned many treaty rights by allocating federal lands, abolishing tribal courts, and giving the Interior Department control over mineral leases on Indian lands.
The Act brought along allotments to the Five Civilized Tribes such as the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee Creek, and Seminole who were previously exempt from the General Allotment Act of 1887.
The Curtis Act helped weaken and dissolve Indian Territory tribal governments by abolishing tribal courts and subjecting all persons in the territory to federal law. This meant that there could be no enforcement of tribal laws and that any tribal legislation passed after 1898 had to be approved by the President of the United States.
In 1900, after pushing through Congress legislation that provide for the further allotment of tribal lands in Indian Territory, Curtis wrote to Secretary of the Interior Ethan Allen Hitchcock and proudly proclaimed, “I have done more to secure legislation for the Indian Territory than all others put together since the 54th Congress of 1896.”
Meanwhile, he and his wife had always provided a home in Topeka for his paternal sister Dolly Curtis. So, when his wife died of an undisclosed cause in 1924, Dolly took over the care of his home and later assisted him with his social calendar during his vice presidency.
Curtis sought the presidential nomination in 1928 and hoped a deadlocked convention would allow him to win as a dark horse candidate. However, Herbert Hoover won the nomination and then offered the VP nomination to Curtis, hoping that the senator from Kansas would balance the ticket and help Hoover overcome his unpopularity in farm states.
Truth be told, Charles Curtis had wanted to be President, but the rest of the nominating committee didn’t agree. He was on the first ballot for the presidency but did not have enough ballots, so he agreed to run as the Vice President instead for Herbert Hoover. Hoover easily won the presidential election with a margin of more than six million votes.
With the election of Hoover-Curtis, there were several firsts in the White House. One was that Curtis became the first unmarried Vice President during his entire time in office as well as the first Native American. Another first was, Curtis arranged for a Native American jazz band to perform at the 1929 Presidential Inauguration.
The Hoover and Curtis association was one of political convenience, and prolonged hard feelings from their controversial battle for the 1928 nomination did little to promote a functional relationship. As VP, he was rarely consulted and had a distant relationship with Hoover. Curtis attended a few cabinet meetings, but as a whole did not significantly affect policy during his tenure.
Four years later, after the start of the 1929 Great Depression, the Hoover-Curtis ticket was badly defeated by the Democratic candidates, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John Nance Garner. Voters felt that both Hoover and Curtis had caused the depression, so the people voted for another Presidential team.
After losing the 1932 election, Curtis retired from public life and practiced law in Washington, D.C. He died of a heart attack at age 76, in the morning hours, alone at home on February 8, 1936.
Many Native Americans today say a great deal of Curtis’ policies were a disaster for their nations. Although Curtis tried his best for his Native people, he was concerned with issues like the education and health of Native American people. At the time, Curtis truly believed he was helping his people. However, in his later years, it has been said he regretted in the end, being an assimilationist. If he were alive today, he would most likely see how his policies had a very negative effect on Native Americans.
Curtis never forgot his Indian heritage. His major concerns were always, Indian rights, farmer’s rights, women’s rights as well as children’s rights. These concerns stayed with him throughout his lifetime. The policies and issues he pursued for Native Americans in Congress and as Vice President changed the world for the better and for some the worst. Still, he will be remembered in a good way, as the first Vice President of Native American heritage.