President Calvin Coolidge signed the Indian Citizenship Act (also known as the Snyder Act, after the bill's sponsor, Representative Homer P. Snyder, of New York) into law on June 2, 1924. This significant step in the battle for civil rights for American Indians is highlighted in this photograph of President Calvin Coolidge flanked by four Osage Indians, outside of the White House in 1925. The photograph was taken in a commemoration of the passage and signing of the Snyder Act. The Osage formerly inhabited the area between the Missouri and Arkansas Rivers, and were a part of the Sioux Nation.
The Indian Citizenship Act granted full citizenship to all of the approximately 125,000 of 300,000 indigenous people living in the United States. The text reads:
BE IT ENACTED by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That all noncitizen Indians born within the territorial limits of the United States be, and they are hereby, declared to be citizens of the United States: Provided, That the granting of such citizenship shall not in any manner impair or otherwise affect the right of any Indian to tribal or other property.
The Constitution of the United States had not recognized American Indians as citizens, and the guarantees of rights to African Americans contained in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments did not extend to American Indians. The federal government and some of the states allowed individual Indians to enjoy the rights of citizenship following service in the armed forces, marriage to white citizens, or abandonment of tribal affiliations in order to own private property and pay taxes.
Many government officials believed that American Indians should be assimilated into mainstream American culture prior to being granted full citizenship. The Dawes Act of 1887 permitted American Indian tribes to be dissolved as legal entities with distribution of tribal lands among the individual members, who would then become federal and state taxpayers. The remaining tribal lands were then considered surplus and were distributed to homesteaders. These changes did not affect Virginia Indians because there were no federally recognized reservations in Virginia. Other provisions of the Dawes Act established American Indian schools where children were taught reading and writing, as well as the customs of white America. The Dawes Act did not foster the assimilation desired but instead forced American Indians to choose between their heritage and the opportunity to become United States citizens.
The Snyder Act was far more inclusive than other policies that dealt with citizenship, but it was not until the Nationality Act of 1940 that all people who were born on United States soil were automatically considered citizens. The Snyder Act created national citizenship for indigenous people in the United States, but the qualifications for state citizenship were determined by each individual state. The final state to grant full citizenship to American Indians was New Mexico in 1962.
1. What did the Snyder Act do for American Indians?
2. How was the Snyder Act different from other legislation designed to help American Indians?
1. This legislation passed without vocal support from American Indians groups. Why would white Americans pursue legislation for American Indians citizenship? What reasons would an American Indian have to oppose this legislation?
This photograph is a part of the National Photo Company Collection at the Library of Congress. The collection documents virtually all aspects of Washington, D.C., life. During the administrations of Presidents Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover, the National Photo Company supplied photographs of current news events in Washington, D.C., as a daily service to its subscribers. It also prepared sets of pictures on popular subjects and undertook special photographic assignments for local businesses and government agencies. The images date between ca. 1850 and 1945; the bulk of the images were created between 1909 and 1932. The photographic files of the National Photo Company, including an estimated 80,000 images (photographic prints and corresponding glass negatives), were acquired by the Library from its proprietor Herbert E. French in 1947.
Haas, Theodore H. “The Legal Aspects of Indian Affairs from 1887 to 957.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science:“American Indians and American Life” 311 (May 1957): 12–22.
Peterson, Helen L. “American Indian Political Participation.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science,: “American Indians and American Life” 311 (May 1957): 116–126.
Bruyneel, Kevin. “Challenging American Boundaries: Indigenous People and the 'Gift' of U.S. Citizenship.” Studies in American Political Development 18 (Spring 2004): 30–43.
Haney-LÓpez, Ian. White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race. New York: New York University Press, 2006.