Next week, when she takes the oath of office, Senator Kamala Harris will make history as the first woman, first African American, and first person of South Asian heritage to become vice president of the United States. But she won’t be the first person of color in the office. That honor belongs to Charles Curtis, an enrolled member of the Kaw Nation who served as President Herbert Hoover’s veep for his entire first term from 1929 to 1933. Prejudice against Native Americans was widespread and intense at the time, but Curtis’s ascent to the office speaks to his skillful navigation of the political system. His rise also tells a broader story of how prominent Native Americans viewed how their communities should assimilate within a predominately white society and government. The policies Curtis pursued in Congress and then as vice president, specifically those on Native issues, cloud his legacy today despite his groundbreaking achievements.
Curtis was born in 1860 to a white father from a wealthy Topeka family and a mother who was one quarter Kaw (a tribe also known as Kanza or Kansa). When he was young, Curtis’ mother died, and his father fought in the Civil War for the United States. Growing up, he spent time living with both his sets of grandparents and for eight years, he lived on the Kaw reservation. Curtis grew up speaking Kanza and French before he learned English.
Mark Brooks, site administrator for the Kansas Historical Society’s Kaw Mission site, says Curtis was known for his personal charisma.
“He had a knack for conversation,” Brooks says. “He was just a very likeable person even early on when he was just a young boy in Topeka.”
In 1873, the federal government forced the Kaw south to Indian Territory, which would later become Oklahoma. The adolescent Curtis wanted to move with his community, but, according to his Senate biography, his Kaw grandmother talked him into staying with his paternal grandparents and continuing his education.
“I took her splendid advice and the next morning as the wagons pulled out for the south, bound for Indian Territory, I mounted my pony and with my belongings in a flour sack, returned to Topeka and school,” Curtis later recalled, in a flourish of self-mythologizing. “No man or boy ever received better advice, it was the turning point in my life.”
Curtis gained some fame as a talented horse rider, known on the circuit as “Indian Charlie.” But his grandparents on both sides encouraged him to pursue a professional career, and he became a lawyer and then a politician. Contemporary accounts cite his personal charm and willingness to work hard served him well in politics. Kansas politician and newspaper editor William Allen White described him carrying books with the names of Republicans in each Kansas township, mumbling the names “like a pious worshiper out of a prayer book” so that he could greet each of them by name and ask about their family.
Despite the racist treatment of the Kaw by white Kansans—which included land theft and murder—many whites were obviously willing to vote for Curtis.
“The one thing that might have lightened the persecution of Curtis was that he was half white,” Brooks says. “He’s light-complected, he’s not dark-skinned like a lot of Kanza. His personality wins people over—unfortunately, racists can like a person of color and still be a racist, and I think that’s kind of what happened with Charlie. He was just a popular kid.”
Curtis rose within the Republican Party that dominated Kansas and became a congressman, then senator, and eventually Senate majority leader. In office, he was a loyal Republican and an advocate for women’s suffrage and child labor laws.
Throughout his time in Congress, Curtis also consistently pushed for policies that many Native Americans today say were a disaster for their nations. He favored the Dawes Act of 1887, passed a few years before he entered Congress, which allowed the federal government to divide tribal lands into individual plots, which eventually led to the selling of their land to the public. And in 1898, as a member of the Committee on Indian Affairs, he drafted what became known as the Curtis Act, extending the Dawes Act’s provisions to the so-called “Five Civilized Tribes” of Oklahoma.
“[The Curtis Act] enabled the dissolution of many tribal governments in Oklahoma on the path to Oklahoma becoming a state,” says Donald Grinde, a historian at the University at Buffalo who has Yamasse heritage. “And of course, that [opened up] tribal land in Oklahoma to white settlers, sooners.”
Curtis also supported Native American boarding schools, in which children were taken from their families and denied access to their own languages and cultures. Abuse was rampant. Grinde cites the schools as a factor in the population decline of Native Americans between 1870 and the 1930s.
“You tell mothers, ‘OK, you’re going to give birth to a child, but at 5 they’re going to be taken from you,’” Grinede says. “Lots of Indian women chose not to have children.”
Historian Jeanne Eder Rhodes, a retired professor at the University of Alaska and enrolled member of the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes, says land division under the Dawes and Curtis Acts ultimately “destroyed everything” for many Native American tribes. At the time, however, Curtis’ positions were far from unique among Native Americans. While many were dead set against land division and other policies pushed by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, others believed that tribes must assimilate into white American society and adopt norms like individual land ownership.
“At the turn of the century when he’s working there are very prominent Indian scholars and writers and professional Indian people who are all talking about these issues,” Rhodes says. “Some of them are opposed to the idea, some of them are opposed to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, some of them are working for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.”
She said Curtis, like other Native American assimilationists, was concerned with issues like the education and health of Native American people, who were already suffering immensely in a pre-Dawes Act United States. And, she said, if Curtis hadn’t supported assimilation, he would never have gotten far in the era’s white-dominated politics.
“What do you do when you’re in a situation like Curtis?” Rhodes says. “He’s proud of his heritage and yet he wants to be in a position where he can do something to support Native issues. I think he tried his best and I think he regretted, in the end, being assimilationist.”
As Curtis approached his late 60s, already having achieved so much, he had one more rung to climb on the political ladder. In 1927, when Republican President Calvin Coolidge announced that he would not run for another term, he saw his chance to run for President the following year.
His plan was to run a behind-the-scenes campaign, seeking support from delegates who he hoped would see him as a compromise candidate if they couldn’t come together behind one of the frontrunners. Unfortunately for him, that scenario didn’t pan out; Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover won on the first ballot.
By this time, there was already bad blood between Curtis and Hoover. The senator had bristled at Hoover’s choice in 1918 to campaign for Democratic candidates and tried to stop then-President Warren G. Harding from appointing him to his cabinet, which he did anyway in 1921. Seven years later, the Republican Party saw putting the two together on their ticket as the solution to a serious problem: Hoover was tremendously unpopular with farmers. Curtis, Kansas’ beloved veteran senator, offered the perfect choice to balance out the Commerce Secretary.
But what about his race? Grinde says Republican Party leaders and voters would have been aware of Curtis’ Kaw identity.
“They recognized that he was one-eighth Indian, but he had served the interests of white people for a long, long time,” Grinde says.
He also notes that the relationship of white Americans of the time with Native American identity was complicated. For some white people with no cultural links to Native nations, it might be a point of pride to claim that their high cheekbones marked them as descendants of an “American Indian princess.”
Despite his assimilationist politics, throughout his career Curtis honored his Kaw heritage. He had an Indian jazz band play at the 1928 inauguration and decorated the vice presidential office with Native American artifacts. And, even if many Native American people were unhappy with the land allotment plans he had championed, many Kaw were proud of him. When he was chosen for the vice presidential slot on the Republican ticket, Kaw communities in Oklahoma declared “Curtis Day,” and some of his Kaw relations attended the inauguration.
After all he had achieved to reach the vice presidency, Curtis’ time in office was anticlimactic. Hoover remained suspicious of his former rival and, despite Curtis’ enormous expertise in the workings of Congress, kept him away from policy. Washington insiders joked that the vice president could only get into the White House if he bought a ticket for the tour. The best-known event of his term involved a dispute over social protocol between Curtis’ sister, Dolly, and Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter, Alice. Dolly acted as Curtis’s hostess since his wife had died before he became vice president, and asserted that this gave her the right to be seated before the wives of congressmen and diplomats at formal dinners. Alice bristled over what she characterized as the questionable “propriety of designating any one not a wife to hold the rank of one.” And, aside from personal squabbles, the onset of the Great Depression made the White House a difficult place to be. In 1932 the Hoover-Curtis ticket lost in a landslide defeat to New York Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Speaker of the House John Nance Garner.
And yet, Brooks says, Curtis did not lose his taste for politics. After his defeat he chose to stay in Washington as a lawyer rather than go home to Topeka. When he died of a heart attack in 1936, he was still living in the capital.
“That had become who he was,” Brooks says.