Grave of the Week: Charles Curtis

This is an historic Presidential election, as well know: for one, it features the first female major party nominee, and will end the term of the first African American president. Should the Republican, Donald Trump, win the office, he would be the first President who had never served in any public office or government position (counting military command). With all of the talk of firsts – as well as the drama and entertainment that the race has included – it’s easy to forget about the Vice Presidential candidates, who have a lower profile in this election than in any I can remember. Mike Pence and Tim Kaine could be both be described as mild-mannered, and neither would represent a ‘first’ for the office. They hold their first and only debate Tuesday night, and the audience is expected to be well below the record numbers that tuned in to watch the first meeting of the tops of the tickets.

So for today’s Grave of the Week I wanted to honor a ‘first’ that is almost completely ignored: the first person of (acknowledged) non-European descent to ever be elected to an Executive Office. His name was Charles Curtis, and in 1929 he was inaugurated as the first and only Native American Vice President of the United States.

Curtis was born to Orren Curtis, an Anglo of English, Scottish and Welsh descent – a settler in the new Kansas Territory. His mother was a product of the tumultuous upheavals of the Plains: she had strong ties to the Kaw, or Kanza, who gave the Kansas territory its name; she also had heritage from other tribes such as the Osage and Potawatomi. The legacy of French colonialism in the region was represented in her heritage as well.

Curtis himself was born only a year before Kansas gained its statehood, and grew up primarily on a Kaw reservation during and after the American Civil War, in which his father fought (for the Union). His mother died at an early age, but he was raised by her parents until his teenage years. He first gained fame within his tribe during a small battle between the Kaw and Cheyenne, during which Curtis – as an eight year-old boy – joined an older rider to seek help from the state government. He felt a strong cultural connection to the Kaw in particular – and Native Americans in general – throughout his later life; he would fight as an elected representative for Native American citizenship, and generally considered himself to be culturally Indian, at least as a younger man.

That did not mean, however, that he was above questionable decisionmaking when it came to Native American relations. After a time as a lawyer and prosecutor in Topeka, Curtis was elected to Congress. While there, he sponsored and passed the Curtis Act, which was a corollary to the infamous Dawes Act. The Dawes Act was one of a series of bills that followed the final removal of all Western Native Americans to reservations in the 1880s and 1890s, and it was meant, in a paternalistic and colonialist manner, to “improve” and “civilize” Native Americans by forcing them to adopt European methods of government and organization, and to attend schools that sought to anglicize them through language, dress, religion and custom. Curtis’s Act did not create those conditions, but it did extend them to cover the so-called “Five Civilized Tribes” in Oklahoma: The Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, Cherokee and Seminole who had been moved there with varying degrees of violent force earlier in the century from their native lands in the American southeast.

For Curtis, laws like these made sense: he himself had benefited from a western education, and believed it would help Native Americans integrate into wider American society. We now know that the objections to these programs that were raised at the time by Native American groups themselves were largely correct: acts such as these were no more than land grabs, attempts to corral Native Peoples into towns of the government’s choosing, increase land for white settlement, and destroy Native governmental structures that could have potentially led or organized resistance to further colonization.

As Vice President, Curtis remained very much aware and proud of his heritage; he made sure to include a Native American marching band as part of the inaugural that year, as he and President Hoover took the oath of office, and continued to advocate for Natives in his own, admittedly flawed way. His Vice Presidency ended just as Hoover’s presidency did – a bitter defeat at the hands of Franklin Roosevelt and John Nance Garner. Curtis lived only another three years after leaving the Vice Presidency; after his death he lay in state at the Kansas Capitol, and may still be the only person to have been so honored (at least, probably, until Bob Dole passes away). He is buried in a small, dusty cemetery in North Topeka – a well kept grave that speaks to his complicated identity and importance.

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