As It Happens

Kamala Harris's win is historic, but the 1st U.S. VP of colour was elected 91 years ago

Kamala Harris made history this weekend when she became the first woman, Black person and South Asian elected to the nation's second highest office. But the first person of colour in that role was Charles Curtis, a member of the Kaw Nation who served alongside president Herbert Hoover between 1929 and 1933.

Charles Curtis, the 1st and only Native American vice-president, left behind a controversial legacy

Portrait of Charles Curtis, vice-president of the United States under Herbert Hoover from 1929-1933. (Corbis/Getty Images)

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Jeanne Eder Rhodes says most people are taken aback when she tells them that Kamala Harris is not the first person of colour to be elected vice-president of the United States.

Harris made history this weekend when she became the first woman, Black person and South Asian elected to the nation's second highest office. But the first person of colour in that role was Charles Curtis, a member of the Kaw Nation who served alongside president Herbert Hoover between 1929 and 1933.

"They're always quite surprised. They didn't know that there was a Native American vice-president," Rhodes, a Dakota Sioux historian and retired U.S. history professor, told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"And then I go into talking about other important figures in the United States and things that we've done as Native people."

Curtis was a savvy lawyer and Republican politician, and he often described his own rise to success as going from "a Kaw teepee to the Capitol," according to his U.S. Senate biography.

During his political career, he became the fourth Indigenous person elected to the House of Representatives, one of only five Indigenous people elected to the Senate, and eventually, the first and only Native American vice-president.

But his assimilationist views and policies made him a contentious figure among Native Americans. And his place in history, says Rhodes, has been largely lost from the popular memory.

Leaving home for a 'white man's education'

Curtis was born in North Topeka, Kansas, in 1860, and was a member of the Kaw Nation. His father was a descendent of Europeans, while his mother was of mixed Kaw, Osage and French-Canadian heritage.

"He was a gregarious young man. He liked to race horses. He became a jockey and really enjoyed life on the reservation," Rhodes said. 

He eventually left the reservation to seek out his fortune.

"It was his grandmother on his mother's side who encouraged him to go and live with his paternal grandparents in order to receive the white man's education," Rhodes said.

"Because basically she said: If you stay around here, you're not going to do anything. You're just going to continue riding horses and doing nothing."

Jeanne Eder Rhodes is a Dakota Sioux historian and retired U.S. history professor from the University of Alaska Anchorage. (Submitted by Jeanne Eder Rhodes)

According to his Senate bio, Curtis credited that moment with his eventual success.

"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," he said. 

"No man or boy ever received better advice, it was the turning point in my life."

Assimilationist policies 

Curtis went on to become a lawyer, and later pursued a career in politics with the Republican Party. 

It was during his time in the House of Representatives that he passed one of his most contentious bills, which still has implications for Indigenous people in the United States today.

The Curtis Act in 1898, according to azcentral.com, overturned treaty rights, allotted tribal land to individuals without consent from the tribes, abolished tribal courts and gave the Secretary of the Interior the power to lease out mineral rights on Indigenous lands.

The act gave the Kaw the right to vote, which wasn't secured nationwide for Native Americans until 1924, but stripped away Indigenous autonomy over their land and culture.  

"He felt that becoming assimilated into the white society was good for Indian people," Rhodes said, noting that many Native professionals and scholars at the time pushed a similar ideology. 

"I would say that he's certainly part of trying to support Native people, but in a different timeframe."

I think we tend to be proud of the fact that we have a former vice-president of the United States who is American Indian. And yet we can understand the issues that he had to face.- Jeanne Eder Rhodes, historian 

The bill was an extension of the 1887 Dawes Act, which paved the way for the U.S. government to convert tribal communities into private property and allot it to Native American individuals and heads of household.

"It virtually destroyed that whole communal system that Native people had," Rhodes said. 

"And the problems are compounded as the years increase, because when you give someone 160 acres of land and nothing else, how do you farm it? Where do you buy the seed? How do you get money to buy seeds? Or if you're going to be a rancher, how do you buy the cattle? You don't have an income."

What's more, she said, once land was given out to every qualifying Indigenous person or family, the surplus land was opened up to non-Indigenous settlement. 

"So millions of acres of land are taken from the Indian territory for non-Indians," she said. 

A later version of the Curtis Act, the Kaw Allotment Act of 1902, ended the legal existence of the Kaw Nation and parcelled out 400 acres of Kaw land to 249 individual members. The Kaw Nation would not re-organize until 1959.

Curtis and Hoover, pictured here in 1928, famously did not get along. (Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

After the House and the Senate, Curtis went up against Hoover for the Republican presidential nomination race. When he lost, he was tapped as VP.

But the nomination race was close and bitter, Rhodes said, and Hoover and Curtis never got along. 

"He made some negative remarks about Hoover, which I don't think Hoover ever forgave him for that. And so when he became vice-president by the push of the Republican Party, then Hoover makes sure that he sort of disappears from the scene," she said.

In fact, the embittered president's sidelining of Curtis may be partially responsible for his diminished legacy.

"It's when he becomes vice-president that he loses power," Rhodes said.

Today, Rhodes says Curtis's legacy is complex and must be viewed through a historical lens. She noted that his struggles — how to find success while walking in two cultures — are not so different from those of Native Americans today.

"I think we tend to be proud of the fact that we have a former vice-president of the United States who is American Indian," she said. "And yet we can understand the issues that he had to face."


Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Lisa Bryn Rundle.

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