When Calvin Coolidge’s motorcade arrived in the southwestern corner of South Dakota on August 17, 1927, he became the first United States president to make an official visit to a reservation. As the New York Times reported, Coolidge appeared in front of “10,000 Sioux Indians as supreme chief”—a nod to a recent ceremony that had awarded him the Lakota name Wanblí Tokáhe, which translates to “Leading Eagle.”

Addressing the crowd at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation that summer day, Coolidge spoke of his “satisfaction” at having signed an “epoch-making law,” one that “symbolized the consummation of what for many years had been the purpose of the federal government—to merge the Indians into the general citizenry and body politic of the nation.”

The law that Coolidge praised was the Indian Citizenship Act, which he’d enacted three years earlier, on June 2, 1924. A century old this week, the legislation stated that “all noncitizen Indians born within the territorial limits of the United States” were now citizens.

Coolidge at the 1927 ceremony marking his adoption by the Sioux
Coolidge at the 1927 ceremony marking his adoption by the Sioux Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
A dance performed in honor of Coolidge's visit to South Dakota in 1927
A dance performed in honor of Coolidge's visit to South Dakota in 1927 Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Coolidge’s South Dakota speech revealed the extent to which he viewed this legislation as purely beneficial for the estimated 40 percent of Native people who had not yet become American citizens by 1924. Political support for Native citizenship had increased after World War I, when 12,000 Native men “proved to be courageous and rendered distinguished service” for the U.S., as Coolidge later reflected.

Congress granted these veterans citizenship in 1919; the president later spoke fondly of the Native dignitaries who attended the burial of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery in 1921, saying their presence “symbolized the outstanding fact that the red men and their neighbors had been brought together as one people.”

Coolidge’s comments alluded to a broader trend in the early 20th-century U.S. At the time, many white Americans believed “that the best way forward for Native people would be through having them speak English, having them be taught in a different school, having them dress a certain way, having them worship a certain way. And the final completion of that [process] was full citizenship,” says Stacy Leeds, dean of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. A member of the Cherokee Nation, Leeds is the first Indigenous woman to serve as a law school dean.

But universal—and unilateral—citizenship for Native Americans was not welcomed by all. Members of the Onondaga Nation protested the act as “a destructive and … injurious weapon” that abrogated their existing treaty with the federal government. “We, the Indians, have not as yet tired of the free use and enjoyment of our rights as Indians living on reservations,” they wrote in a December 1924 letter to the president.

Coolidge poses next to Sioux representatives on the White House lawn in 1925.
Coolidge poses next to Sioux representatives on the White House lawn in 1925. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The Onondaga Nation’s objection highlighted an enduring, visceral disagreement over governance. The new law “purported to apply to everybody, no matter the context or situation,” says Leeds. “That in and of itself erases the importance of tribal sovereignty.”

Coolidge delivered his 1927 speech in a place with potent meaning: the sacred Black Hills, where the Sioux had established a reservation under the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868. After an expedition led by Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer found gold in the area in 1874, Congress violated the terms of the treaty by restoring part of the reservation to “the body of the public lands”—dry legislative speak for seizing this profitable soil from the Sioux, who had a long history in the region.

Tensions between the two groups culminated in the June 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn, colloquially known as “Custer’s Last Stand” due to the American commander’s overwhelming defeat there. The Black Hills were also the site of the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre, in which American troops killed up to 300 Lakota, including women and children.

Survivors of the Wounded Knee Massacre
Survivors of the Wounded Knee Massacre Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The taking of Native land is a recurring theme throughout U.S. history. The American government established myriad treaties with tribal groups that, even when unfavorable, inherently acknowledged Native sovereignty. The drafters of the Constitution recognized this authority too, granting Congress the power to “regulate commerce with foreign nations … and with the Indian tribes.”

But the desire to negotiate faded as the U.S. expanded, growing in both political power and size as it pushed westward. The 1830 Indian Removal Act epitomized this shift, authorizing the relocation of Native tribes west of the Mississippi River. Though the Cherokee sought to prevent their removal by claiming sovereignty, the Supreme Court ruled that tribes were “domestic dependent nations” who were “in a state of pupilage,” tied to the U.S. in a manner akin to “that of a ward to his guardian.” The failed appeal paved the way for the Trail of Tears, in which an estimated one-third of the roughly 17,000 Cherokee forced to travel on foot to Oklahoma died.

In 1871, Congress formalized its rejection of tribal sovereignty, declaring that “no Indian nation or tribe within the territory of the United States shall be acknowledged or recognized as an independent nation, tribe or power with whom the United States may contract by treaty.”

Charles Curtis, the first vice president of color, sits next to Calvin Coolidge and his wife, Grace Coolidge, in 1925.
Charles Curtis, the first vice president of color, sits next to Calvin Coolidge and his wife, Grace Coolidge, in 1925. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The 1887 Dawes Act accelerated the loss of tribal lands, dividing communally held Native territory into individual allotments intended for farming and ranching. (The government seized any “surplus” land outside of these parcels—in total, more than 90 million acres—and sold it to white settlers.) Citizenship was on offer for Native Americans who claimed allotments and “adopted the habits of civilized life,” defined as a stationary, agrarian lifestyle and social structure that mirrored that of white Americans. Land and citizenship became even more intertwined. As Coolidge said at Pine Ridge in 1927, the Dawes Act represented “the next forward step in this progress contemplating complete citizenship,” building upon Congress’s negation of the treatymaking process in 1871.

Legislation bearing the name of Representative Charles Curtis, who later became the first vice president of color, reinforced the Dawes Act in 1898 by expanding its territorial scope and hastening the dissolution of tribal governments. Curtis, whose father was a white settler, spent part of his childhood on the Kaw reservation in Kansas before moving to Topeka and launching a successful career in politics—one that embodied a certain model of assimilation.

Less than a decade later, in 1906, the Burke Act gave the secretary of the interior sweeping—and highly subjective—power over allotees, including latitude to determine “whenever he shall be satisfied that any Indian allottee is competent and capable of managing his or her affairs.”

Taken collectively, “this mass of legislation, decisions, rules and regulations” resulted in “confusion, much trouble and in too many cases injustice to the Indians,” as Coolidge later said. The president sought to address the ills wrought by such policies by encouraging Native Americans’ absorption into mainstream white American society.

Coolidge poses with Ruth Muskrat and other members of the Committee of One Hundred in 1923
Coolidge poses with Ruth Muskrat and other members of the Committee of One Hundred in 1923. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

“Coolidge and his contemporaries believed that assimilation was a good and benevolent thing,” says Eric Zimmer, a historian and the director of philanthropy at the Black Hills Area Community Foundation. “But they understood that the way that it was happening—federal Indian policy—was not working.”

On December 13, 1923, a few months after President Warren G. Harding’s sudden death propelled then-Vice President Coolidge into office, the new commander in chief invited the Committee of One Hundred to the White House. Convened earlier that year by Secretary of the Interior Hubert Work, the group of elite advisers (both Native and white) was tasked with finding solutions to the enduring “Indian problem,” as it was often called. Work acknowledged that “for many years, the government has been charged intermittently with having no policy, or with exploiting the Indian, or with acquiescing in his extinction or with permitting the dissipation of his wealth.”

One of the Native activists invited to the White House that day was Ruth Muskrat, a student at Mount Holyoke College, who delivered a speech in which she evoked the legacy of generations past while pointing to the promise of youth to “become the leaders of this new era.” Muskrat, who later dined with the president and the first lady, presented Coolidge with a copy of The Red Man in the United States, a text by a Protestant missionary that described these “ideal” leaders as “Indian men and women who have come under the influence of Christianity and through it of American culture and civilization.”

“We want to become citizens of the United States,” Muskrat told Coolidge, “and to have our share in the building of this great nation that we love.”

Ruth Muskrat presents a book to Coolidge in December 1923.
Ruth Muskrat presents a book to Coolidge in December 1923. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Also in 1923, Coolidge appointed Charles Eastman, a Santee Dakota physician, author and advocate for Native rights, to the role of U.S. Indian inspector, with responsibility for conditions on reservations. Eastman, who had tended to the injured at Wounded Knee in 1890, was supportive of the movement to expand citizenship—and was in a position to advise the president directly.

The range and breadth of Native approaches to citizenship—opposition, adaptation, political engagement—defies simplification. But political engagement served as a kind of funnel through which select Native voices were heard.

“The people who would have objected the most to [citizenship] would not have been politically engaged,” says Leeds, “and they certainly wouldn’t have had the power of the voices that you get to read in the papers and in those speeches.”

Coolidge expressed awareness of the range of views on the matter, even if he was not directly engaged with them. “It is a curious fact that most people in this country seem to believe that [the] Indians are a homogenous people and can be dealt with as a unified race of nation,” he said at Pine Ridge. “The exact contrary is the outstanding fact which has made the Indian problem a most difficult one.”

Coolidge poses with members of a Comanche delegation in 1928.
Coolidge poses with members of a Comanche delegation in 1928.  Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

As president, Coolidge seemed to take an interest in meeting with Native groups, ensuring he was photographed meeting with tribal representatives at the White House throughout his tenure, from the Committee of One Hundred at the start of his term to a Comanche delegation during his last year in office. The famously taciturn president claimed in his autobiography that his great-grandmother’s family “showed a marked trace of Indian blood.” But this claim is unverified, its origin seemingly known only to Coolidge himself.

Coolidge’s decision to spend the summer of 1927 in South Dakota provided an opportunity for concentrated interactions with Native groups. On July 7, the president visited an Indian boarding school in Rapid City, where “he asked the superintendent if the little Indian girls did not get homesick sometimes,” Time reported. On August 2, several Sioux chiefs met with the president and, according to the Associated Press, “told him of the old Indian ownership of the Black Hills, and the hunting and fishing they had enjoyed here.” Though a congressman seeking election had pledged to help the chiefs claim compensation for the seized land, he failed to follow through. The president, Zimmer says, “promised to look into” the matter, but ultimately, “nothing material came of” his efforts. (In 1980, the Supreme Court ruled in the Sioux’s favor, awarding the tribal confederation $106 million, or upwards of $1 billion today. But the Sioux have refused the money because accepting it would forfeit their claim to the land. The dispute remains unresolved.)

On August 4, Coolidge attended a ceremony in which he was adopted as “Leading Eagle” by Sioux chiefs Chauncey Yellow Robe and Henry Standing Bear. Footage from that day shows Yellow Robe’s daughter, Rosebud, affixing a feathered war bonnet to Coolidge’s head. The New York Times claimed that a handful of surviving veterans who’d fought against Custer at Little Bighorn attended the ceremony, which was held in the town of Deadwood.

Coolidge receiving headdress from Sioux Nation
Coolidge was named an honorary member of the Sioux in a ceremony in Deadwood, South Dakota, on August 4, 1927. Forbes Library

In a speech, Standing Bear alluded to the contradictions of that moment, highlighting where the attendees stood, in “these Black Hills for which our people have long struggled against the whites,” and expressing hope for a “future relationship more enlightened.”

But some disapproved of the chiefs’ induction of the president into the tribe: Though records are scarce, the Rapid City Journal noted internal discord at the invitation, with some Sioux leaders reportedly “indignant at the ceremony.” (During Coolidge’s visit to Pine Ridge two weeks later, tribal representatives handed him a message that more directly laid out the issue at hand. It stated, “We are too proud to ask for anything that is not ours by right, and all we ask is that our treaties be kept [and] that our lost lands be paid for.”)

After the ceremony, the president—still wearing his war bonnet—sat in the stands for Deadwood’s Days of ’76 celebration. A re-creation of frontier life in the West, the festivities included “an attack on a wagon train by the Indians, a reproduction of Custer’s Last Stand and Indian dances,” the Lead Daily Call reported. This romanticized take on the Wild West may have seemed like an odd venue for Sioux leaders to engage with Coolidge, but the location reflected the importance of the Black Hills’ budding tourism industry. “The local premier tourist attraction would both be attractive to [Coolidge] and his entourage, as well as the press covering him,” says Zimmer.

Chief Leading Eagle (1927)

Coolidge gave another speech in the Black Hills on August 10, at Mount Rushmore, which was known by the Lakota as the Six Grandfathers Mountain but was later renamed for New York attorney Charles Rushmore by white settlers. Inaugurating work on the national memorial that adorns the mountainside today, the president said, “Its location will be significant, … a mountain which probably no white man had ever beheld in the days of [George] Washington, in territory which was acquired by the action of [Thomas] Jefferson, which remained almost unbroken wilderness beyond the days of [Abraham] Lincoln, which was especially beloved by [Theodore] Roosevelt.”

While in South Dakota, the president announced that he would not seek re-election. Toward the end of Coolidge’s term in 1928, Work commissioned a study of the poor conditions Native people continued to face due to previous federal policies. The resulting Meriam Report laid out in detail medical, educational and social hardships, including the “grossly inadequate” provisions for children at Indian boarding schools and the disruption to families wrought by forced enrollment at such institutions.

The report also repudiated the promises of the Dawes Act, noting that “many [Native Americans] are living on lands from which a trained and experienced white man could scarcely wrest a reasonable living.” It blamed widespread poverty on the fact that the “economic basis of the primitive culture of the Indians has been largely destroyed by the encroachment of white civilization. The Indians can no longer make a living as they did in the past by hunting, fishing, gathering wild products.”

View of the Black Hills
View of the Black Hills today Runner1928 via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0

Work’s report led to the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. Signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the legislation reversed the Dawes Act and re-enabled tribal land ownership. It also provided for tribal constitutions that would be recognized by the federal government, though some tribes rejected this approach to sovereignty.

As had been the case for more than a century, land and legal rights remained subject to prevailing political winds. In 1953, Congress passed a resolution that is often referred to as the “termination policy” for its elimination of individual tribes. President Richard Nixon sought to reverse the resolution in the early 1970s, calling for “self-determination without termination.”

The ever-pendular relationship between tribal nations and individuals and the federal government served as a persistent reminder that citizenship did not confer equal footing. States continued to disenfranchise Native voters for decades after the 1924 act. Despite her earlier praise for the law, Muskrat, who went on to work for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, wrote in 1944 that “the full privileges of democracy enjoyed by other citizens of the land” were still lacking for Native Americans.

Highlights: President Obama Visits Standing Rock Reservation, North Dakota, June 13, 2014

In his 1927 message to Congress, Coolidge spoke of his desire “to advance the time when the Indians may become self-sustaining.” The following year, he reiterated his hope for “complete participation by the Indian in our economic life.” Yet the president also vetoed legislation that would have enabled tribal groups to sue in claims court—a blow to those seeking land restitution. (Coolidge expressed support for the notion but balked at the accumulated interest payment.)

“For all their significance to local and regional history, the president’s interactions with American Indians in Rapid City, Deadwood and Pine Ridge did not shake the entrenched … ethnocentrism of the day,” wrote Zimmer in a 2017 journal article. “They did not spur Coolidge to action.”

Coolidge’s 1927 visit to a reservation has been emulated by just a few presidents since, among them Franklin D. Roosevelt, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. The speech Coolidge delivered at Pine Ridge revealed the deeply ingrained beliefs, at once paternalistic and sincere, that prompted him to sign the Indian Citizenship Act a century ago. That act ushered in another chapter in a long, fraught relationship between Indigenous peoples and the U.S., one in which these individuals were further absorbed—along with both the pitfalls and potential that process entailed—into the “body politic” of the nation.

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