The War after the War: the American Indian Fight for the Vote after WWII

Today’s post is written by Cody White, Archivist at the National Archives at Denver and Subject Matter Expert for Native American Related Records

“We all know Congress granted the Indian citizenship in 1924, but we still have no privilege to vote, we do not understand what kind of citizenship you would call that.” – Pvt. Ralph Anderson, 1943

“Your patriotism is not denied, your devotion to duty is beyond question and in certain phases of warfare, the Navajo has no equal. With such a record, there can be no denial that you are entitled to the same right of suffrage as other citizens.” – Navajo Service Superintendent J.M. Stewart, 1943

“The right of American Indians to vote in Arizona elections for state and federal officers has after two decades again arisen, like Banquo’s ghost, to challenge us.” – Justice Levi Udall, 1948

On May 6, 1946, two former United State Marine Corps Navajo Code Talkers, Jimmie King and Howard Nez, walked into the Shiprock Public School in New Mexico to register to vote. They were denied. Three days prior in Apache County, Arizona, the same scene played out for James Manuelito. At two o’clock that same day, May 3, Army veteran Watson Gibson walked into New Mexico’s McKinley County Clerk’s office and asked to be registered to vote. County clerk Eva Sabin denied him. The men who had stormed beaches throughout the Pacific during WWII were now storming local county offices for the right to vote and their story can be found within the Record Group 75 Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) holdings at the National Archives at Denver.

Affidavits of James Manuelito and Howard Nez attesting to the fact they were denied the right to register to vote. NAID 7863696.

The issue of voting is directly tied into American Indian citizenship, which was murky for much of U.S. history. While tribes across the United States predated the country itself and so were clearly already here, citizenship was not a given but rather used as an incentive for the country to obtain what it wanted. In the early 19th century when the United States began coveting, and thus taking traditional tribal homelands, citizenship was offered in exchange for land. The later treaties with tribal nations as well as the allotment acts beginning in the 1870’s further offered citizenship for those who complied with the wishes of the government. The passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments regarding citizenship during the Reconstruction era were of no help, as they were decided by the Supreme Court to not apply to American Indians. Following WWI and the significant contribution of American Indians to the armed forces, a 1919 law granted citizenship to all honorably discharged veterans. Then came the 1924 law formally granting citizenship to all American Indians, but as the nation famously saw with Jim Crow, states and local municipalities often had other ideas.

Even within the Bureau of Indian Affairs reaction to the 1924 citizenship law was varied. Here we see the Crow Agency Superintendent actively seek a way to disenfranchise tribal members, in much the same way Arizona and New Mexico would soon do statewide. NAID 1135936.

It was 1928 and the Apache County Attorney Levi Udall wrote the Fort Defiance Navajo office with an issue. The State of Arizona had carved out an exception to voting, to exclude “idiots, insane persons, persons no-compos-mentis, or under guardian-ship.” Udall wondered that since the local Navajo on the reservation were considered wards of the government, should they be allowed to vote. At the same time, BIA Commissioner Charles Burke in Washington, DC was working over a similar issue in New Mexico where the state was using a different tactic to prevent the American Indian vote. New Mexico argued that since American Indians residing on reservations were not taxed, they should not vote. Burke suggested to the Navajo superintendent that a legal case might be in order to crush the New Mexico law. Burke also wrote Udall a sternly written letter pointing out a 1924 Arizona Attorney General opinion following the citizenship law made “no exception on the grounds of wardship.” The Arizona Supreme Court, however, agreed with Udall. The court issued an opinion that year which said American Indians on the reservations were under guardianship and thus could not vote.

In the 1930s Burke gave way to the progressive John Collier as BIA Commissioner who kept up the fight. While there is some correspondence from the 1930s, it appears from the records saved that the issue came to a head in the early 1940s, during WWII when so many were called up to serve overseas.

Page one of a three-page letter written in 1943 by Private Ralph Anderson and sent to the Navajo Tribal Chairman and the Navajo Service Superintendent demanding the right to vote, on behalf of “the Navaho Soldier boys.” NAID 7863696.

The first election following WWII was in 1946 and that April there was a flurry of letters at all levels. The Arizona Attorney General bluntly wrote the Arizona Secretary of State that military service does not matter; those living on the reservation would still not be allowed to vote. Udall shows up again, this time as an Apache County Judge, and writes a local justice of the peace on the issue. “My sympathy of course is with these Indian veterans” but he goes on to state that his hands are tied as for letting them vote. He strangely closes his letter noting he is a candidate for the state supreme court and that he “would like to carry Apache County by an overwhelming majority.” Lastly, the Apache County Attorney wrote a local justice of the peace near the Navajo Nation reiterating that American Indians residing on the reservation were not to be registered. As we see with the affidavits in our holdings, nevertheless they persisted.

Apache County Attorney J. Smith Gibbons reiterates that no one residing on the reservations should be allowed to register to vote. NAID 7863696.
R.E. Karigan writing the Navajo Service Superintendent listing whom he refused to register to vote. NAID 7863696.

Acting Department of Interior Solicitor Felix Cohen suggested having individuals sue instead of having the federal government sue on their behalf. That advice seems to have been taken once the court cases began, as we see in copies of the filed complaints found in the BIA files. In addition to his advice and later legal help in New Mexico, the correspondence shows that Cohen helped coordinate funding; “I have the assurance of the American Civil Liberties Union that the organization will cover the expenses of the litigation.”

Arizona’s restriction was the first to fall when on July 15, 1948, the Arizona State Supreme Court struck down its 1928 precedent and ordered that Native Americans in the state who fulfilled all other requirements could not be barred from voting because they lived on a reservation. Incidentally, the majority opinion was written by none other than Levi Udall, having made his way onto the court. One month later, New Mexico’s ban was also stricken when the U.S. District Court ruled in favor of Miguel Trujillo, an Isleta Pueblo and veteran. Brushing aside Valencia County’s argument that the matter was best resolved at the state court level, the three judges agreed unanimously that the “Indians not taxed” provision to prevent them from voting was a civil rights matter and unconstitutional. As Judge Savage noted in the oral delivery of the opinion, “There has never been any question in my mind as to the unconstitutionality of the constitutional provision.”

The Declaratory Judgment issued August 11, 1948, formally prohibiting the State of New Mexico from enforcing the “non-taxed” suffrage exclusion. This brief is part of Case #1353 and is found in the Record Group 21 Records of District Courts of the United States, District of New Mexico, also held by the National Archives at Denver. NAID 778051.

Nationwide the issue would continue until 1957, when Utah finally capitulated and allowed the native population to vote.

The records referenced in this post can be accessed and researched at the National Archives at Denver. Further information on the topic within RG 75 might be found at both the National Archives at Riverside, which also holds substantial Navajo Agency records, and the National Archives at Washington, DC, where BIA headquarters records are held.