For all of Kamala Harris' impressive firsts, she’s not the first person of color elected vice president of the United States.
That was achieved by Charles Curtis, a Native American lawmaker and member of the Kaw Nation, who served under President Herbert Hoover some 90 years ago.
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Curtis, a conservative Kansas Republican, reveled in the prestige of the vice presidency. Despite widespread discrimination against Native Americans, he celebrated his ethnicity, often boasting of his rise “from Kaw tepee to Capitol," decorating his office with artifacts, and posing for photos in a feathered headdress.
He and Hoover disliked each other. The president rarely sought his advice. Both men, having presided over the stock market crash that commenced the Great Depression, were swept from office after a single term in Franklin Roosevelt’s 42-state landslide in 1932.
That helped relegate Curtis to history’s footnotes, despite national name recognition in his day.
Three times he appeared on the cover of Time magazine, then the arbiter of who and what mattered. Beginning in 1892 he won multiple terms to the House of Representatives from his district in Topeka, then was elected to the Senate, where he rose to majority leader.
“It’s an incredible achievement to climb as high as he did,” said Oklahoma attorney and historian Brett Chapman, who is of Ponca, Kiowa and Pawnee descent, and whose great-great-grandfather, Horse Chief Eagle, took part in the Hoover-Curtis inauguration. “To be able to do this in his time is just crazy to me.”
Curtis believed in cultural assimilation, that Native peoples must meld into the dominant white society — an ultimately disastrous idea created, enforced, and exported at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. Scores of government- and church-run schools across the country soon followed Carlisle’s example, working to erase the languages, customs, and religions of Native children.
That forced assimilation now “is viewed negatively, and rightfully so,” Chapman said, but Curtis “definitely had his supporters” among Native Americans.
“They saw, '[This is] somebody with his foot in the door to power. He’s proud to be an Indian.’”
If he’s remembered today, it’s usually for his drafting of the 1898 Curtis Act. Formally titled “An Act for the Protection of the People of the Indian Territory,” it did the opposite, overturning treaty rights by abolishing tribal courts and giving the federal government control over mineral leases on Native lands.
His modern anonymity as the first person of color to serve as vice president, scholars say, stems largely from white-establishment decisions about whose stories are told, whose experiences are emphasized in schools.
“There’s a long history of deemphasizing Indigenous histories,” said Darren Lone Fight, a professor of Native American studies at Dickinson College in Carlisle, and an enrolled member of The Three Affiliated Tribes — Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara. “And there’s a long history of famous Native Americans who aren’t recognized as Native American.”
For instance, Curtis' contemporary, the great humorist Will Rogers, was in his day “the single most popular and beloved man in America,” noted PBS' American Masters. And he was Cherokee. But those tribal ties were not recognized by Americans “troubled at the prospect of accepting an Indian who did not fit their expectations,” Rogers scholar Amy Ware wrote in Indian Country Today. “He led a life that seemed non-Indian to his white fan base: he was a cowboy; he was wealthy; he ran largely in non-Indian political circles.”
Born in 1860, when Kansas was a Territory, still a year away from statehood, Curtis was the great-great-grandson of White Plume, a Kaw chief, according to his Senate biography. He spoke the Kansa language before English, and spent his earliest years in both white and Native communities around North Topeka.
At age 6, he moved to the Kaw reservation with his maternal grandparents, learning to ride bareback and becoming a fearless horseman.
“I had my bows and arrows, and joined the other boys in shooting arrows at nickels, dimes, and quarters which visitors would place in split sticks,” Curtis recalled.
His paternal grandparents, worried about Cheyenne raids in what was still a frontier West, took him back to Topeka. Curtis became a winning jockey, but turned down a contract to race at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial. Instead, at the urging of his elders, he tended to his schooling.
After high school graduation, he studied law, was admitted at 21 to the Kansas bar, and opened his own firm. Always interested in politics, Curtis won election in 1884 as the Shawnee County attorney, known for his strict enforcement of Prohibition laws.
“He was a handsome fellow, five feet ten, straight as his Kaw Indian grandfather must have been,” Emporia Gazette editor William Allen White wrote in 1891, “with an olive skin that looked like old ivory, a silky, flowing, handlebar mustache ... a mop of crow’s wing hair, a gentle ingratiating voice, and what a smile!”
In 1892 Curtis won upset election to the House, claiming the seat for Republicans even as Kansas elected a Populist governor and voted for a Populist presidential candidate. He went to the Senate to fill an unexpired term in 1907 — state legislatures did the choosing then — and won the seat on his own by popular vote in 1914.
As Republican whip, he led the floor fight for the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote. He became chair of the Senate Rules Committee in 1923 and two years later became majority leader.
Idaho Sen. William Borah called him “a walking political encyclopedia and one of the best political poker players in America.”
When President Calvin Coolidge surprised the nation by choosing not to run for re-election in 1928, then-Commerce Secretary Hoover became the frontrunner for the nomination, and Curtis his competitor.
Hoover won on the first convention ballot. Republicans believed the Kansas senator would balance the ticket, given Hoover’s unpopularity in farm states.
The pair won 58 percent of the popular vote, claiming 444 electoral votes to 87 for Democrats Al Smith and Joseph Robinson. The victory brought Hoover and Curtis no closer.
“Neither man mentioned the other in his inaugural address, and except for formal occasions they seem to have had as little to do with each other as possible,” Curtis' Senate biography notes.
Curtis' vice presidential duties were relegated to the social and ceremonial. He presented the Distinguished Flying Cross to Amelia Earhart, and opened the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. Mostly, he presided over the Senate, occasionally casting tie-breaking votes.
He offered little buoyancy to Hoover’s sinking re-election hopes, insisting to angry and frightened out-of-work voters “that the Depression was simply a natural economic fluctuation,” noted the Miller Center at the University of Virginia.