California’s Kamala Harris will be sworn in on January 20th as vice president of the United States, an event which will mark several important historical turning points. The Oakland-born senator from California will be the first woman, first African American and first Asian American to become a U.S. vice president. But, media outlets and some entertainers have wrongly labeled her as the nation’s first biracial senator.

This misconception has even seeped into popular culture. A recent episode of the NBC sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live featured Maya Rudolph acting as Harris.

“I am humbled and honored to be the first female,” Rudolph said,” the first Black, the first Indian American, and the first biracial vice president. And if any of that terrifies you, well I don’t give a funt.” 

The reality is that Charles Curtis who became vice president under President Herbert Hoover in 1928 was the first multiracial American to hold the vice presidency. Little known to us today he was once one of America’s most powerful politicians.

Curtis remains to this day the only enrolled member of a Native American tribe to become vice president or win a national election. Curtis was always proud of his Native American heritage which came from his mother who was of Kansa, French, Osage, and Potawatomi heritage. Curtis event learnt to speak the former two languages before he spoke English. His father, a Union soldier during the Civil War, was of Caucasian heritage. Thus, he was roughly 3/8th Native American 5/8ths European American. He remains the only enrolled member of a Native American tribe to reach the Vice Presidency and was only the fourth Native American ever elected to the United States Congress. Raised largely by his grandparents he spent much of his early life on a reservation near Council Grove where he was well known as the great-great-grandson of White Plume, a Kaw chief known who negotiated with Lewis and Clark expedition during their famed negotiations of 1804.

The future vice president was eight years old when a Cheyanne raid took place against his own Kaw people. Worse still the horses were gone, and help in Topeka was sixty miles away from their reservation. 

“Though only 8 years old at the time, I was selected to make the trip. One reason was that I spoke the language of the white man. I could deliver my message. Another was that I had traveled back and forth to Topeka many times, visiting my father’s relatives,” Curtis later wrote.

Incidences such as the Cheyanne raid convinced his family that his future was not on the reservation. He was soon sent packing to live with family in Topeka where just five years later at the age of 13 he was making his living as a jockey and soon became famous as the “Indian jockey” to adoring gamblers and saloon crawlers. 

After one race a local madam gifted him with clothes, boots, a hat and of course candy. “I had never been so petted in my life, and I liked it,” Curtis would later recall.

Curtis was elected to Congress in 1893 though drew little attention to himself. Yet, a chance encounter with Speaker of the House Tom Reed changed his political fortunes. Curtis once entered Reed’s office by chance to find the speaker in heated conversation with his colleagues. The topic was America’s relationship to the international gold standard. “Indian, what would you do about this?” Reed asked. Curtis recommended a special committee to write a new bill. Impressed with his response to a political impasse, Curtis ended up chairing a special committee on the subject. That committee drafted the Gold Standard Act of 1900 which would last until 1933 when President FDR eased America’s commitment to the gold standard.

Curtis came to relish waging politics in cigar filled rooms as much as he had once relished racing horses. He often quipped that he was “one-eighth Kaw Indian and a one-hundred per cent Republican.” Though he would come to regret his involvement in the signature Native American policy he became involved with while in Congress. Under the terms of the Curtis Act tribal government would extend no further than the allotment deeds to tribal members. In an interview conducted in the 1930s, Curtis expresses regret at the final version of the bill.

Indeed, while he relished inside-baseball politics, he didn’t always win such contests. In 1924 and again in 1928 he was a dark horse candidate for U.S. president. 

“Senator Curtis grows white with anger at the suggestion that he is Vice Presidential timber. He will have none of it. He insists that he is still in the contest for the Presidential nomination,” wrote the New York Times in its coverage of the 1928 convention.

Yet, Curtis put his ambition aside when he accepted the vice-presidential nomination for the good of the party and the country. His Native American heritage seemed to have been little an issue in either campaign. Indeed, in 1920 Oklahoma Senator Robert Latham Owen, of Cherokee heritage, was a Democratic Presidential candidate.

Only in 1924 did the United States officially grant birthright citizenship to Native Americans.

Curtis himself had played a leading role in the passage of that act in congress. Just the year before last act of armed resistance by Native Americans against the United States before the Second World War he had concluded with the brief Possey War in Utah. Indeed, the story of Curtis speaks to a country in transition. He became the last person elected to the vice presidency to be born in a U.S territory and the first-born West of the Mississippi.

Though the election of Kamala Harris has attracted attention to his life in times a website ran by Charles Curtis aficionados has long advocated for recognition for the former Vice President and his accomplishments as well as calling for a postage stamp to honor the former vice president. Yet, when the next vice president swears in on a bible her oath of office, she will perhaps unknowingly channel the former vice president. Charles Curtis was the first vice president to take his oath of office by placing his hand on a bible.

Joseph Hammond
Joseph Hammond

Joseph Hammond is a journalist and fellow with the African Union’s iDove program. He served as Cairo correspondent for Radio Free Europe in 2011 during the Arab Spring. In 2013, Hammond embedded with M23 rebels in the Eastern Congo becoming one of the last journalists to do so before that group’s rout by United Nations forces. Hammond’s work has been published by The Economist, Forbes, Slate, Christian Science Monitor, International Business Times, Monocle, Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown (CNN), U.S. News and World Report, Deutsche Welle (Qantara), and other publications. He on the advisory board member of several organizations including the Center for Media and Peace Initiatives. He was a Fulbright Public Policy fellow with the government of Malawi. He has also completed fellowships and leadership programs with the Commonwealth of Nations, National Endowment for Democracy, Atlantic Bruecke, National Endowment for Democracy, the Atlantic Council of the United States, International Center for Journalists, the Heinrich Böll Stiftung North America Foundation and the Policy Center for the New South's Atlantic Dialogue. Follow him on Twitter @TheJosephH

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