The 2020 US Presidential elections made history in many different ways. One of the most hopeful and exciting outcomes was Kamala Harris becoming the first woman, and the first woman of colour, to be elected to the post of vice president. Harris has African-American and Asian-American roots, and she will be the first person from either group to be hold the second-highest office in the United States.
Harris, however, won’t be the first person of colour to do so: Charles Curtis, a Native American man who grew up on a Kaw Indian reservation in Kansas was vice president (VP) of the United States between 1929 and 1932. Curtis, an interesting and often overlooked historical figure, was a charismatic politician who had a successful career in Washington at a time when minority representation was so much rarer than it is today. Curtis proudly manifested his Native American roots while in office and was a vocal proponent of women’s suffrage, while he isn’t remembered as an advocate of Native American socio-economic rights.
Charles Curtis, a biography
The child of Native and white communities
Curtis was born in 1860 in North Topeka, which at the time was part of Kansas Territory, a region that hadn’t yet been fully incorporated into the United States. In 1861, the eastern part of the territory was admitted into the Union of Northern states (the North and South of the county were divided and fighting a civil war at this time) as the state of Kansas. This name derived from Kansa, which is what European colonisers called the Kaw Native American population. Curtis’ mother, Ellen Pappan, was the great-granddaughter of Kaw chief White Plume, who had offered assistance to the Lewis and Clarke expedition in 1804 – a westward discovery mission carried out by colonisers after acquiring land in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Ellen was also of Native Potawatomi and French descent, and one of her ancestors was chief Pawhuska of the Osage tribe. Curtis’ father, Orren Curtis, was of English, Scots and Welsh ancestry.
Charles Curtis spent his childhood living between Native and white communities. His first words were in Kansa and French, reflecting his mother’s ancestry, but Ellen passed away when he was just three years old. His father wasn’t consistently present throughout Curtis’ childhood, and so his grandparents shared the duty of care. He spent several years on the Kaw reservation: “I had my bows and arrows,” he later recalled, “and joined the other boys in shooting arrows at nickles, dimes and quarters which visitors would place in split sticks”. Thanks to his knowledge of the Kaw language, Curtis fit in well in the Native community, and he even became an excellent bareback horse rider. In his teenage years, he would go on to become a successful jockey in Topeka.
Education and a start in politics
In 1873, when Curtis was 13, his maternal grandparents left Kansas with other members of the Kaw tribe, heading to the Indian Territory of Oklahoma. Charles wanted to follow them and live on the reservation, but Julie, his grandmother, convinced him to pursue an education: Curtis returned to Topeka to live with his paternal grandparents and later remarked that this was a turning point in his life. After high school, Curtis studied Law and was admitted to the Kansas bar at the age of 21.
From a young age, he had shown an interest in politics, carrying a torch during a Republican parade in 1880 for James Garfield’s presidential campaign. In 1884, Curtis was elected as Shawnee county attorney, and in 1889 he ran for a vacant seat in Congress, losing the nomination by just one vote. His political stance was conservative, in favour of tariffs and prohibition, but, throughout his career, he showed a great ability to bring together opposing sides and had a phenomenal gift for remembering the names and lives of the people he represented. “His politics were always purely personal. Issues never bothered him,” journalist William Allen White once said of Curtis. In 1884, the newly elected county attorney married Anna Baird. They had three children together.
The career of a Native American politician
Congress and the Curtis Act
Curtis was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1892. The first decade of his political career was centred around his work in the Committee on Indian Affairs, which culminated in the Curtis Act of 1898. This legislation – whose full title was “An Act for the Protection of the People of the Indian Territory and for Other Purposes” – didn’t have a positive impact on the rights of Native American tribes. It resulted in the allocation of tribal lands to private owners and the abolition of tribal courts and governments. With a single stroke of the pen, the tribes immediately lost over 36 million hectares of their communal lands.
The Curtis Act essentially paved the way for the incorporation of Oklahoma into the United States and set the scene for subsequent land grabs by the USgovernment. As a member of the Kaw Nation, Curtis ended up personally benefiting from another piece of legislation linked to the Curtis Act: in 1902, under the Kaw Allotment Act – which Curtis drafted – he and his children received full ownership, known as fee simple title, to Kaw land in Oklahoma. This is undoubtedly the most controversial part of Curtis’ legacy. However, it should be noted that it is very unlikely that the legislator would have been able to counteract the United States government’s appropriation of Native land and its allocation to private owners, a trend that had already been set in motion by colonisation. In fact, given the power of these forces, it could be argued that Curtis wouldn’t have had a political career at all, let alone a successful one, had he been a staunch defender of Native American rights.
Senator Charles Curtis and women’s suffrage
Charles Curtis served in the House until 1907, when the Kansas state legislature elected him Senator. He served one term and kept pushing for high tariffs, heavily influencing the Payne-Aldritch Tariff, a new law that raised taxes on imported goods to such an extent that it caused a split in the Republican Party. Curtis became a victim of this split, losing his Senate seat in 1913. However, the following year, with to the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment, the public was allowed to vote for Senate representatives directly for the first time. Thanks to his legendary familiarity with voters and a general swing towards conservative candidates at the time, Curtis was able to reconquer his Senate seat. He was chosen for the key role of party whip, which involved ensuring that representatives voted according to the party line.
In 1918, Republicans won a majority in the Senate, and Curtis’ role as whip became even more important. Over the following two years, he became a staunch proponent of women’s suffrage, playing an instrumental role in the process that led to the vote being extended to women in 1920. A journalist at the time said that “no one ever accused him of being a Progressive, but the feminists nevertheless called him friend, and it is one of the proudest of his claims that he led the floor fight for the Nineteenth Amendment”.
Ambitions for high office
At the 1920 Republican National Convention, Curtis was part of a small group of influential figures that brought about Warren G. Harding’s nomination. When Harding won the presidential election, Curtis entered the inner circle of political power in the US. In 1925, he became majority leader, and conservative Pennsylvania Senator George Wharton Pepper remarked that Curtis “displayed a remarkable talent for accomplishing good results for his party by what in international parlance are termed ‘conversations’ with the other side. He was unusually adept at making deals”.
During the 1920s, Curtis had started to harbour presidential ambitions, and he was rumoured as the likeliest vice presidential candidate in 1924. However, he took himself out of contention because his wife Anna took ill. She died on the 29th of June 1924. In 1927, President Coolidge – who took over the position following Harding’s death and was re-confirmed in the 1924 elections – announced that he wouldn’t be running the following year and most assumed he favoured Curtis as his successor. The latter staged a fairly low-key campaign in the 1928 Republican primaries, continuing to devote most of his attention to his work in the Senate. Herbert Hoover was the frontrunner throughout the campaign and eventually won the nomination. Curtis had spoken out against him at a speech in Kansas, and the two men were never on the best of terms. Nevertheless, Republicans decided Curtis was the best option as running mate.
Charles Curtis, the first vice president of colour
On Tuesday the 6th of November 1928, US citizens elected Herbert Hoover as President of the United States. Thus, Charles Curtis became the first vice president with Native American heritage – and the first person of colour, though this terminology was not in use at the time – in the country’s history. This was a remarkable achievement, considering that Curtis was only the third ever Native American to be elected to the House and the second to win a seat in the Senate. During his tenure as VP, he also continued to demonstrate his support for women: his private secretary, Lola M. Williams, became the first-ever woman to attain high office in the United States.
Curtis was immensely proud of his heritage, adorning his office with Native American artefacts and posing for pictures wearing traditional headdresses. Unfortunately, there was no love lost between Hoover and the second-in-command, and the latter was rarely asked to attend Cabinet meetings or consulted for advice on affairs of state. Hoover was an intellectual, a political idealist, whereas politics for Curtis was a personal matter.
The Hoover presidency was marred by the market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression, which the administration was unsuccessful in mitigating. Curtis, alienated from the corridors of power, became almost a figure of ridicule. He was even caricatured in George and Ira Gershwin’s Broadway musical, “Of Thee I Sing”, which included the character of Alexander Throttlebottom, a vice president who could only visit the White House as part of a tour group. When Hoover and Curtis ran against Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, they lost the election in a landslide. This marked the end of Curtis’ political career: he stayed in Washington to practice law and passed away in February 1936.
A complex legacy
Curtis’ time as vice president was not as active or consequential as he might have hoped and, sadly, it didn’t lead to an immediate increase in political representation for Native Americans. Yet the fact that he was able to attain such a position is a testament to his resilience and political capabilities. And his legacy as the first Vice President of colour, second Native American Senator and third-ever Indigenous Congressman can still be held up as an essential precursor to the increase in representation we have seen in recent years.
Native Americans remained unrepresented in the Senate until 1993, when Ben Campbell, a Colorado representative with Northern Cheyenne ancestry, won a seat in the Upper House. The situation in the House of Representatives has been marginally better, with 15 Native Americans having won seats since Curtis moved to the Senate in 1907. Notably, the last three have been women: Sharice Davids, a Kansas Democrat elected in 2019, the same year as New Mexico Democrat Deb Haaland, and Yvette Herrell, a Republican representing New Mexico’s second congressional district, who was voted in the most recent elections on the 3rd of November. Davids also made history by becoming the first LGBTQ+ Native American member of Congress. Her story, much like Harris’s, give us a reason to be hopeful that the tide might be slowly shifting towards political representation that better reflects the diversity at the core of the United States’ fabric.
Dozens of House Democrats have called on President-elect Biden to make Rep. Deb Haaland the first Native American Cabinet secretary in U.S. history.
Harris’ election to the vice presidency, much like the continued success of “The Squad” – a Democratic group of progressive women of colour in Congress, composed of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib -–seem to indicate that the white male dominance of US politics is slowly being eroded. While their stories gain prominence, it’s also worth looking back at historical precedents, finding exceptions to white male rule: individuals who overcame near-impossible odds to make it to the upper echelons of power. Curtis is definitely among these outliers: a Native American who was proud of his heritage and became vice president. While his legacy is more mixed than might appear at first glance, there is still much to learn from his story, and his championing of women’s suffrage resonates with the increased political participation of women, and especially women of colour, that the US is currently experiencing.