Brookings register | Meet Charles Curtis, the first Indian to serve as Vice President of the United States

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Editor’s Note: Next Monday, October 11, is Native American Day in South Dakota.

Did you know that Kamala Harris is not the first person of color to have served as Vice President of the United States?

Charles Curtis was vice president under President Herbert Hoover. And her path to being a stone’s throw from the Oval Office is intriguing.

Curtis was born January 25, 1860 in North Topeka, Kansas Territory. His father Orren Curtis was white; his mother Ellen Pappan, was a mix of Kaw, Osage, Potawatomi and French, according to Wikipedia. He spoke French and Kansa before learning English.

Curtis’ mother died when he was 3 and he lived with his maternal grandparents on the Kaw reservation while his father served in the Civil War. Growing up, Curtis became known for his riding skills.

“In 1873, the federal government forced southern Kaw into Indian territory, which would later become Oklahoma,” according to smithsonianmag.com online.

Curtis’ grandparents Louis and Julie Pappan were going, and he wanted to go too, but Julie had a conversation with him.

“She invited him to his wagon and asked him why he wanted to go to Indian territory. While she would have liked nothing better than to have him with her, she told him that in the reserve he would end up “like most men, with no education or future prospects” and encouraged him to return to Topeka. and attend school, according to senate.gov online.

Curtis would later say that was the best advice he had ever received, saying “it was the turning point of my life,” according to senate.gov.

Encouraged by both groups of grandparents, especially his grandmothers, to study, Curtis became a lawyer and then a politician. By all accounts, he had a lot of personal charm and a willingness to work hard.

His charisma was part of the reason his race never held him back, according to Mark Brooks, administrator of the Kansas Historical Society’s Kaw Mission site, on smithsonianmag.com.

“The only thing that could have alleviated Curtis’ persecution was that he was half white. He’s pale, he doesn’t have dark skin like a lot of Kanza. His personality appeals to people – unfortunately racists can love a person of color and still be racist, and I think that’s kind of what happened with Charlie. He was just a popular kid, ”Brooks said, according to smithsonianmag.com.

Never a secret

Curtis had enrolled in the Kaw Nation after moving to Indian territory and had never hidden his heritage, telling crowds that he was “an eighth of Kaw Indian and a hundred percent Republican,” according to senate .gov.

“He had an Indian jazz band play at the 1928 inauguration,” according to smithsonianmag.com, which also includes a Library of Congress photo of Curtis with the 13-tribe Indian group of the United States at the United States Capitol. United States.

Curtis’ background was recorded in the Emporia Gazette in 1891 by publisher William Allen White.

“He was a handsome boy, five feet ten, straight as his Indian grandfather Kaw must have been, with olive skin that looked like old ivory, a silky flowing mustache, black eyes with shoe buttons… . a mop of crow’s wing hair, a sweet and graceful voice and what a smile! Blanc wrote.

Republican House Leader Thomas B. Reed took a liking to Curtis, called him “the Indian” and made him one of his lieutenants, according to senate.gov.

The Republican Party was dominant in Kansas at the time, and Curtis rode the wave, becoming a congressman, senator, and Senate Majority Leader. He was an advocate for women’s suffrage and child labor laws, according to smithsonianmag.com. “This is one of the proudest of his claims that he led the fight (in the Senate) for the Nineteenth Amendment,” which gave women the right to vote, according to senate.gov.

Although he has a reputation for being able to work both sides of the aisle, Curtis’ political career has not been without controversy.

He was considered an “assimilationist” and supported certain laws which are now believed to have harmed Indians, most notably the Dawes Act, which authorized the federal government to divide tribal lands, and he drafted the Curtis Act to expand the provisions of the Dawes Law, according to smithsonianmag.com. Curtis also supported Indian Residential Schools, which took Indian children from parents, sometimes by force.

Since then, many cases of abuse have been reported.

Historian Jeanne Eder Rhodes, a retired University of Alaska professor and registered member of the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes, said Curtis was a product of his time and that his position may have been political.

“At the time, however, Curtis’ positions were far from unique among Native Americans,” according to smithsonianmag.com, adding that some were strongly opposed to assimilation while others believed the tribes should be sidelined. assimilate to survive.

Rhodes said if Curtis had not supported assimilation he would not have gone this far in politics.

“He is proud of his heritage and yet he wants to be in a position where he can do something to support Indigenous issues. I think he did his best and I think he finally regretted being an assimilationist, ”Rhodes said, according to smithsonianmag.com.

Vice-presidency

Curtis’ political ambitions have reached their peak. In 1927, President Calvin Coolidge announced that he would not be running again, and Curtis planned to run for President. Herbert Hoover, then Secretary of Commerce, won the party’s nomination.

Apparently the two didn’t like each other, according to smithsonianmag.com, but the Republican Party felt the combination would benefit his ticket.
“Hoover was extremely unpopular with farmers. Curtis, the beloved veteran senator from Kansas, offered the perfect choice to balance the Secretary of Commerce, ”according to smithsonianmag.com.

So an Indian born in Kansas became Vice President of the United States in 1929.

“Curtis’ election as vice president made history because he was the only Kansan native and the only Native American to hold the post, as well as the first person of color,” according to en.wikipedia .org. “The first person of a Native American tribe to be elected to such a high office, Curtis decorated his office with Native American artifacts and posed for pictures while wearing Indian headdresses. “

After his tenure as vice president, Curtis remained in Washington, where he died of a heart attack on February 8, 1936, at the age of 76. His body was brought back to Kansas and buried next to his wife.

Facts about Charles Curtis, according to en.wikipedia.org:

• “Curtis was the first vice president to take an oath on a Bible in the same manner as the president.

• “To this day, Curtis is the last Vice President who has been single during his entire tenure,” as his wife, Annie Elizabeth Baird, died in 1924. They had three children.

• “He was 69 when he took office, making him the oldest incoming vice president at the time. He is now the second oldest, behind Alben W. Barkley at 71. Barkley was vice chairman of Harry S. Truman.

For more on Curtis, read “In His Own Words: Kansan, Native American, Orphan, Jockey, Entrepreneur, Attorney, Politician, Senator and Vice President of the United States of America” by Charles Curtis; and “An Indian in the White House: The Story of Vice President Charles Curtis” by Tony McReynolds.


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