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On January 20, 2021, Kamala Harris was sworn in as Vice President of the United States of America. As the first woman, first African American, and first person of South Asian descent elected to the vice presidency, Harris’ achievement was historic in several significant ways. However, there was some confusion over whether or not she was the “first vice president of color.” Contemporaries were surprised to find out that Harris was actually the second; preceding her was Charles Curtis, a Kansas Republican who served as vice president under Herbert Hoover, and was an enrolled member of the Kaw Nation. His rise in American politics was truly remarkable, as Native Americans had historically experienced war, displacement, dispossession, and racial discrimination. Curtis believed that assimilation was the best path for Indigenous peoples and over time, his political success affirmed his belief. This perspective also shaped his views on tribal authority, allotment, boarding school education, and citizenship.1

This black-and-white photographic portrait is of Vice President Charles Curtis. Curtis served President Herbert Hoover as the 31st Vice President of the United States from 1929-1933. Born in Kansas to a white father and Native American mother, and raised by his maternal grandparents, Curtis was the first person of Native American descent as well as the first person of color to serve as vice president.

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Charles Curtis was born on January 25, 1860, to Orren (also spelled Orrin) Curtis, a White man who later fought in the Civil War, and Ellen Pappan, who was one quarter Kaw Indian and descended from Monchousia (also known as White Plume), a Kansa-Kaw chief. She died when “Charley” was only three years old; as a result, he was raised primarily by his grandparents on both sides, spending portions of his childhood among the White and Native American communities near North Topeka, Kansas.2 His ability to speak Kansa, French, and English made his movement between these groups easier, but this lifestyle was not sustainable. Charles’ maternal grandparents, Louis Pappan and Julie Gonville Pappan, decided to return to the Kaw reservation at Council Grove in 1865. Charley joined them soon thereafter, spending most of the next eight years with the Pappans on the reservation. He became an excellent horseback rider and began racing as a jockey. While his paternal grandfather, William Curtis, tried to convince Charles to give up racing and go back to school, William’s death in 1873 left the decision to Charles. At around that same time, the federal government began forcing the Kaw people to relocate to a new reservation—about 100,000 acres of land in what is today northern Oklahoma.3 Charles wanted to join them—but at the last minute his grandmother Julie told him to go back to Topeka, receive an education, and make something of himself. Later, Curtis enthralled audiences by regaling them with stories from Indian Country, crediting his maternal grandmother for putting him on the road to success. His other grandmother, Permelia Hubbard Curtis, ensured that Charles gave up racing and focused on his studies.4

This photograph shows Julie Gonville Pappan (seated) and her granddaughter Bell Pappan Auld (standing). Julie was a granddaughter of White Plume, who was a member of the Kansa/Kaw tribe. She married Louis Pappan and they operated a ferry across the Kansas River in Topeka, Kansas. Louis and Julie were also the maternal grandparents of Charles Curtis., Kansas Historical Society, Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply

In 1881, Curtis was admitted to the Kansas bar and began practicing criminal law. He became interested in politics, and at age twenty-four was elected Shawnee County attorney; that same year, he married Anna Elizabeth Baird, and they had three children together. In 1892, he won a seat in the House of Representatives as a Republican in a state that elected a Populist candidate for governor and voted for Populist presidential candidate James B. Weaver. Eastern conservatives were impressed with Curtis’ upset victory in an agriculture-heavy state, and he became a rising star in the Republican Party. He was also one of Representative and Speaker of the House Thomas B. Reed’s trusted confidantes on Capitol Hill. Reed nicknamed him “Indian” and addressed him as such, including in front of others; how Curtis felt about this is unknown, but it does demonstrate that despite his education, professional career, conservative principles, and commitment to the party, Reed and others were still fixated on Curtis’ background and lineage.5

This photograph shows Vice President Charles Curtis greeting a group of people in 1928. The group includes several American Indians dressed in traditional attire. Born in Kansas to a white father and Native American mother, and raised by his maternal grandparents, Curtis was the first person of Native American descent as well as the first person of color to serve as vice president. He served as vice president for President Herbert Hoover.

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Perhaps because of his upbringing, or because of his general interest in the subject, Curtis served on the House Committee on Indian Affairs. His most consequential legislative effort was the “Act for the Protection of the People of the Indian Territory and for Other Purposes,” otherwise known as the Curtis Act.6 Passed on June 28, 1898, the legislation abolished tribal courts and placed all residents within the territory under federal law. It also gave the government the authority to decide citizenship status and whether or not an individual was considered a member of a tribe, which determined whether they received compensation or lands from the allotment process. These changes stripped the Five Tribes (the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole peoples) of their right to define tribal citizenship and dissolved communal land ownership. According to one reporter, Curtis predicted that this bill would transform that part of the country, and he expected to see “its union with Oklahoma, and the formation of one of the greatest and grandest states in this Union.”7 About a decade later, Indian Territory and Oklahoma Territory became the state of Oklahoma.8 Curtis also drafted the 1902 Kaw Allotment Act, which stated that all individuals listed with the “Indian agent at the Osage Indian Agency, Oklahoma Territory” would be considered legal members of the Kaw tribe, and that “the lands and money of said tribe” would be divided up among its members.9 By registering himself and his children with the government, the Curtis family received more than 1,600 acres of land, as allotment was premised on the federal government’s recognition of Indigenous status rather than tribal determination. The law also terminated the legal identity of the Kaw Nation, and it remained so until 1959 when the Kaw were legally recognized by the federal government.10 While he had been born into the Kaw tribe and lived among its members during his childhood, Curtis’ efforts to weaken tribal sovereignty and disperse land through allotments was grounded in his belief that assimilation was in everyone’s best interest, even though the majority of Native Americans opposed that argument and these measures. Curtis later supported the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, which extended citizenship to all Native Americans born within the territorial United States and permitted dual citizenship if need be. However, some state and local government officials overseeing the elections found ways to prevent Native Americans from exercising their right to vote.11

In this photograph, taken on January 17, 1929, President Calvin Coolidge signs the Kellogg-Briand Peace Pact in the East Room of the White House. Crafted by Secretary of State Frank B. Kellogg and French Foreign Minister Aristide Briand in light of the casualties that resulted from World War I, the international peace proposal committed 15 nations to outlawing aggression and war in settling disputes. The agreement was signed in Paris on August 27, 1928 and signed by Coolidge following ratification by Congress. Here, Coolidge signs the agreement on the former Cabinet table purchased for the White House during the Ulysses S. Grant administration. Among those in also attendance were Vice President Charles Gates Dawes, Secretary of State Frank B. Kellogg, Secretary of the Treasury Andrew W. Mellon, Secretary of War Dwight Filley Davis, Senator William Edgar Borah, Senator Claude Augustus Swanson, and Vice President-elect Charles Curtis.

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Curtis was elected to the United States Senate by the Kansas legislature in 1907, and won the seat (this time by direct popular vote) in 1914. He rose through the ranks as chairman of the Senate Rules Committee and later succeeded Henry Cabot Lodge as Senate majority leader. His experiences serving in both the House and Senate made him a legislative tactician, but he also had greater ambitions. When President Calvin Coolidge decided not to run in 1928, Curtis continued to operate behind the scenes, hoping to become a compromise candidate if factions of the party could not reach a consensus at the convention. Despite his opposition (and that of farmers and westerners within the party), Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover was nominated on the first ballot. The party then nominated Curtis as the vice presidential candidate, seeking a balance of East and West, businessman and politico. The two men never warmed up to each other, and their interactions were infrequent and only as needed. As a result, Curtis spent most of his time presiding over the Senate and enjoying the few perks that came with the vice presidency. He decorated his Senate office with Native American objects and imagery; met with Indian delegations; and posed for photographs with individuals, groups, and bands, all of which suggest that Curtis was proud of his ancestry.12

In this photograph, taken on April 26, 1929, musicians from the United States Indian Band perform for Vice President Charles Curtis on the steps of the United States Capitol Building. The band, which included representatives from 13 tribal nations, visited the Capitol to pay their respects to Curtis and Oklahoma Senator William Bliss Pine. Born in Kansas to a white father and Native American mother, and raised by his maternal grandparents, Curtis was the first person of Native American descent as well as the first person of color to serve as vice president. He served as vice president for President Herbert Hoover.

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Writers, journalists, and other members of the press were fascinated with Curtis’ story, and sought to share it with more Americans. J.V. Fitzgerald wrote a biographical piece on the vice president, and included one story that featured an eight-year-old Curtis riding more than fifty miles to alert the authorities in Topeka that the Cheyenne were planning to attack the Kaw. “That was in 1868,” wrote Fitzgerald, “when the west was really wild and woolly, when buffalo roamed the plains, when Indians still fought and scalped.”13 Public interest in Curtis’ upbringing and at times obsession over his “Indian blood” closely mirrored his political rise and reflected prevalent racial prejudices toward Native Americans. The Boston Globe published an article on him in 1916 with the headline, “Indian Horse Jockey Now a Senator.”14 The author, James B. Morrow, noted: “Physically, he is not the dusky warrior of romance, being no more than of ordinary stature. He is dark and not red and in color could be an Italian or a Greek.”15 When Calvin Coolidge was elevated to the presidency after the death of Warren G. Harding in 1923, The Baltimore Sun published a full-page feature on Curtis entitled, “An Indian in Rostrum of US Senate.” The article told Curtis’ story and contemplated the possibility of an “American Indian” presiding over the Senate—this included an illustration showing a Native American, outfitted with elaborate war paint, traditional garb, and a feathered headdress, holding the gavel and standing on the rostrum.16 After winning the 1928 presidential election, one Washington Post article discussed the vice president-elect’s “Indian descent,” informing readers that “the blood of the Kaw redskin tribe courses [in] his veins.”17 On the day of the 1929 Inauguration, one columnist remarked that Curtis “lived in a tepee on the plains. In his veins runs Anglo-Saxon and French blood and the proud blood of Indian chieftains of more than one tribe.”18 This fascination with Curtis’ life and fixation on his Kaw identity never ceased during his time in public office.

This photograph shows Vice President Charles Curtis posing while holding a Skookum brand apple with an unidentified Native American man in 1929. The brand name was registered by the Northwestern Fruit Exchange in 1914, with its name derived from a Chinook word meaning "special." In 1921, the Skookum trademark was transferred to the Skookum Packers Association which became a leader in the apple farming industry for the Wenatchee region in central Washington, ancestral home of the Wenatchi-P'Squosa people. Born in Kansas to a white father and Native American mother, and raised by his maternal grandparents, Curtis was the first person of Native American descent as well as the first person of color to serve as vice president. He served as vice president for President Herbert Hoover.

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President Hoover and Vice President Curtis ran for re-election in 1932, and during the campaign a rumor emerged that Curtis had registered as an “incompetent Indian” and that he never paid taxes on his land in Oklahoma.19 The story was repeated with such frequency that the vice president felt compelled to give a response to a reporter: “I am a member of the Kaw tribe. In 1902 [there] was passed an act allotting lands. In that act they provided that a member to sell his property must file application to remove restrictions. I had promised Chief Wash-Shungah [Washungah] that I would not at any time sell my lands. Therefore, I have never filed application to sell and I never filed as an incompetent.”20 While the episode was personally embarrassing to Curtis, his Indigenous heritage was not a factor in the election. Years of severe economic depression, the administration’s inability to combat it, and the turning of public opinion against Republican leadership and ideas coalesced and gave Democratic candidates Franklin D. Roosevelt and John Garner a landslide victory. Curtis left office in 1933 but his retirement was short-lived. About three years later, he suffered a heart attack and died on February 8, 1936, in Washington, D.C., and was buried at Topeka Cemetery next to his wife Anna. Even in his obituaries, reporters highlighted his incredible journey from “an Indian tepee to scale the heights of American public office.”21

Regardless of the dwelling he was raised in, Curtis’ rise to the second highest executive office in the land was extraordinary, especially when one considers the historical mistreatment of Native Americans and the racial turmoil of the 1920s. Curtis used his incredible origin story to advance his political career in Kansas, Washington D.C., and across the country, and over time he became both advocate for assimilationist policies and model of their benefits. As a result, Curtis’ legacy is both complicated and controversial. His ascension to the vice presidency as an enrolled member of the Kaw was unprecedented, and his strong support of women’s rights is often overlooked; he first introduced the Equal Rights Amendment in the Senate in December 1923.22 That said, Indigenous peoples and scholars of Native American history viewed Curtis very differently. The Curtis Act devastated tribal authority and autonomy, and his efforts to reshape Indian-federal policy ended legal recognition for many Native American peoples—including the Kaw Nation. Finally, it should be noted that while Curtis was proud of his heritage, he was reminded of his “blood” frequently and often in negative terms. This is also a reflection of society at the turn of the twentieth century when most viewed Native Americans as racially inferior to White citizens.

This article was originally published November 2, 2021

Footnotes & Resources

  1. The title comes from an article written by William Atherton Dupuy for the New York Times in 1928. See William A. Dupuy, “From Indian Village to Vice Presidency,” The New York Times, November 11, 1928.
  5. Ibid.
  6. “An Act For the Protection of the People of the Indian Territory, and for other Purposes,” June 28, 1898, 55th Congress, Second Session,
  7. The Tahlequah Arrow, March 5, 1898.
  9. “An Act to Accept, Ratify, and Confirm a Proposed Agreement Submitted by the Kansas or Kaw Indians of Oklahoma, and for other Purposes, July 1, 1902, 57th Congress, Session 1,
  10.;;; “An Act to Accept, Ratify, and Confirm a Proposed Agreement Submitted by the Kansas or Kaw Indians of Oklahoma, and for other Purposes, July 1, 1902, 57th Congress, Session 1,
  13. “Story of Boyhood of Vice President is Told by Writer,” J.V. Fitzgerald, The Tacoma Sunday Ledger, July 27, 1930.
  14. “Indian Jockey Now A Senator,” The Boston Globe, June 18, 1916.
  15. Ibid.
  16. “An Indian in Rostrum of US Senate, The Baltimore Sun, October 14, 1923.
  17. “New Vice President of Indian Descent: Blood of Kaw Tribe Runs in the Veins of Senator Charles Curtis,” The Washington Post, November 7, 1929.
  18. “Hoover Versed in Business; Curtis Noted for Acumen,” The Evening Star, March 4, 1929.
  19. The Beatrice News, November 3, 1932.
  20. “Curtis Denies Indian Charge,” Blackwell Journal-Tribune, October 5, 1932.
  21. “Charles Curtis Dies in Capital,” The Baltimore Sun, February 9, 1936.
  22. “Women’s War is Opened With Verbal Barrages,” The Evening Star, December 16, 1923; https://www.visitthecapitol.go...

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