Indian Citizenship

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INDIAN CITIZENSHIP. Some early Indian treaties, such as that of 1830 with the Choctaw, provided for grants of citizenship to individual Indians. The Kickapoo Treaty of 1862 made citizenship dependent on acceptance of an allotment of land in severalty. Other treaties of the Civil War period, including that with the Potawatomi in 1861, required submission of evidence of fitness for citizenship and empowered an administrative body or official to determine whether the Indian applicant conformed to the standards called for in the treaties.

Following ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, several Indian naturalization acts were passed by Congress. Most of them were similar to an 1870 law relating to the Winnebago of Minnesota. Section 10 of the Winnebago Act provided that an Indian might apply to the federal district court for citizenship, but had to prove to the satisfaction of the court that he was sufficiently intelligent and prudent to manage his own affairs, that he had adopted the habits of civilized life, and that he had supported himself and his family for the preceding five years.

The most important nineteenth-century legislation conferring citizenship on Indians was the Dawes General Allotment Act of 1887. The Dawes Act gave citizenship to Indians born within the United States who had received allotments, as well as to those who had voluntarily moved away from their tribes and adopted "the habits of civilized life." The following year, Congress extended citizenship to Indian women marrying persons who were already U.S. citizens.

Approximately two-thirds of the Indians of the United States had become citizens by 1924; in that year Congress passed a general Indian citizenship act, as a result of which all native-born Indians received full citizenship status. However, some states, citing the special relationship between the federal government and Native Americans, as well as a lack of state jurisdiction over them, denied Indians the right to vote until 1957.

Although in the past citizenship had been tied to the abandonment of tribal affiliation, by the early 2000s a Native American could be a U.S., state, and tribal citizen simultaneously. The United States retains the power to define who is and is not an Indian for purposes of determining who may be eligible for federal services, but the right of tribes to determine their own membership criteria has been upheld in court. Tribes use a variety of means to grant, deny, revoke, or qualify membership. Tribal citizenship is normally based on descent. Requirements vary from meeting a minimum degree of ancestry to tracing lineage to earlier tribal members.


Cohen, Felix S. Felix S. Cohen's Handbook of Federal Indian Law. Charlottesville, Va.: Michie, 1982.


See alsoDawes General Allotment Act .

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Indian Citizenship

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