It took many decades for American women to secure their right to vote. African Americans, meanwhile, faced blatant discrimination that the federal government began combating directly in the mid-1960s through federal enforcement. An additional, important part of the suffrage story is the decades-long struggle by Native Americans to assert their voting rights.
In Nebraska, a key figure in that fight was Hiram Chase (1861-1928), a member of the Omaha tribe. The Nebraska History Museum in Lincoln notes this part of Nebraska’s past in its current exhibition, “Votes for Women,” pegged to the State Legislature’s unanimous passage of the 19th Amendment 100 years ago this summer.
The efforts to gain Native American enfranchisement faced a series of barriers over the years. An advancement came in 1879, when U.S. District Judge Elmer Dundy issued his famous ruling in the case of Ponca Chief Standing Bear. This was the first time in American jurisprudence that a federal court had ruled that tribal members are protected by the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law.
Nonetheless, Native Americans continued to face a central legal obstacle: Under the federal Constitution, they weren’t considered U.S. citizens except in particular circumstances such as marriage and military service. The 14th Amendment, ratified in 1869, gave citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States,” but it was interpreted to exclude Native Americans.
In 1921, Chase addressed the Nebraska Legislature and urged the full recognition of Native Americans’ suffrage and property rights. His father, Hiram Chase Sr., was a government inspector, and his mother, Nunzainza, was the granddaughter of Wahnookega, an Omaha chief.
Chase earned a law degree in Cincinnati and in 1891 became the first Native American attorney to be admitted to practice law in the U.S. District Court in Omaha. He served as county judge and county attorney of Thurston County and was a co-founder of the Society of American Indians, the first Native American civil rights organization.
Despite the work of Chase and others in individual states, the lack of citizenship status remained a central barrier for Native American enfranchisement. A breakthrough came in 1924, when Congress passed and President Calvin Coolidge signed the Indian Citizenship Act, formally designating Native Americans as U.S. citizens.
But even that landmark legislation failed to resolve the issue. Individual states, especially those with major Native American populations, continued to obstruct tribes’ voting rights, citing rationales such as property tax exemption for reservations or failure to meet state requirements for residency. Court decisions gradually removed most of those impediments.
By the late 1940s, the main holdouts were the state governments in Arizona and New Mexico. The New Mexico debate included a court case in which Miguel Trujillo, a Native American who had served as a U.S. Marine sergeant and was attending graduate school, sued in federal court to be enfranchised. Trujillo won the lawsuit.
In its ruling, the court said Native Americans had “responded to the need of the country in time of war in a patriotic wholehearted way, both in furnishing manpower in the military forces and in the purchase of war bonds and patriotic contributions of that character. Why should they be deprived their rights to vote now because they are favored by the federal government in exempting lands from taxation?”
The case was one of many examples of how military service in World War II by Native Americans and African Americans helped bolster the arguments for enfranchisement in the late 1940s.
At the same time, a federal civil rights commission appointed by President Harry Truman gave a strong push for Native American enfranchisement. Still, tribal members in some states faced obstacles such as poll taxes and literary tests. In 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act to end such practices. In the present day, Native American voting issues are part of states’ overall policy debates on issues such as voter ID.
Voting provides the very foundation for our governmental system. It’s important to understand the long struggle tribal members have made, in Nebraska and elsewhere, in asserting that all-important right.