The New-York Historical Society’s exhibition, Women March, commemorates the centennial of the 19th Amendment as it explores the efforts of a wide range of women’s collective efforts to expand American democracy in the centuries before and after the suffrage victory. While the Museum is temporarily closed, we are committed to sharing its ideas from afar. In recognizing the limitations of the amendment, particularly for nonwhite women, we focus on women’s activism to expand their citizenship both for and beyond “the vote.” Activism for Native Americans’ rights illustrates the persistence of inequalities and the power of women’s collective action to push against the bounds of their citizenship on a diverse set of barriers into the present. The fight on many fronts—from political representation and the vote to issues of cultural integrity and environmental and reproductive justice—is part of a deeper, and ongoing, struggle for Native American women’s full engagement with democracy.
While the suffrage movement’s deep roots in anti-slavery activism are well-known, many white suffragists of the early 19th century—including Lucretia Mott, Lydia Maria Child, and Matilda Joslyn Gage—were also concerned with Native American rights and inspired by Native American history. In her early writings, for example, Child interpreted Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) culture as a matriarchy where women exercised significant political power and enjoyed unquestioned rights to their children.
However, Native American women did not immediately benefit from the ratification of the 19th Amendment. It was not until the 1924 passage of the Indian Citizenship Act that Native American women and men gained full U.S. citizenship. (Previously, Native American women could only acquire citizenship through marriage to a white man.) For many years afterwards, discriminatory state laws prevented many Native Americans from voting—New Mexico, the last state to enfranchise Native Americans, did not do so until 1962.
The 1924 legislation was part of a larger effort by the federal government to assimilate Native Americans into the white mainstream. This decades-long push began in the late 19th century with the disastrous 1887 Dawes Act, which broke up tribal lands into individual parcels (the majority of which eventually passed to white owners) and sold off “surplus” land to fund a system of boarding schools. Federal agents coerced families and tribes into sending their children to these schools, where they were forbidden to speak Native languages, engage in religious or cultural practices, or wear the clothes and hairstyles of their people. Forced into hard labor and denied medical care, according to the landmark Meriam Report of 1928, children at “Indian schools” were six times more likely to die than other American children.
The brutality of these boarding schools inspired a number of anti-assimilation activists, including Zitkala-Ša (1876-1938, Yankton Sioux), profiled in our exhibition Women March and in the Women & The American Story curriculum. Also known as Gertrude Simmons, Zitkala-Ša was both a student and a teacher in the boarding school system. As a result of her traumatic experiences, she became a fierce critic of assimilation. She began working for the Society of American Indians to preserve Native culture while working towards full citizenship. When the Indian Citizenship Act passed, Zitkala-Ša organized a Native American voting drive. In 1926 she and her husband Raymond Bonnin co-founded the intertribal National Council of American Indians (NCAI), and served as its President until her death. Article II of the NCAI’s Constitution dedicated the organization to protecting and preserving American Indian people — in part “by encouraging Indian women to participate in the activities of American citizens.”
Like the boarding schools, military service was intended to promote assimilation: Unlike Black soldiers, Native Americans did not serve in segregated units. However, many Native American servicemembers took the opportunity to forge intertribal ties and bolster their claims to political equality. Grace Thorpe (1921-2008, Sac and Fox), another activist profiled in Women March and in the Women & The American Story curriculum, joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) at the start of World War II. She rose to the rank of Corporal and received a Bronze Star for her service in New Guinea, where she was stationed when the United States dropped atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The experience informed her anti-nuclear activism later in life. As President of the National Environmental Coalition of Native Americans, she wrote and lobbied passionately against the government’s exploitation of Native lands and workers for uranium extraction, the use of tribal land for nuclear testing and waste disposal, and the contamination of water sources. “Our homes are not dumps,” she wrote bluntly, “The Great Spirit instructed us that, as Native people, we have a consecrated bond with our Mother Earth.”
Cook, as well as Grace Thorpe, Madonna Thunder Hawk, Janet McCloud, Wilma Mankiller, and many others began their activist work in the 1960s and 1970s, which saw Red Power and the American Indian Movement (AIM) attract a new generation of activists with a strong emphasis on cultural integrity, self-determination, tribal sovereignty, economic independence, and direct action. The intertribal movement is perhaps best known for its high-profile protests of Washington State fishing laws in 1962, the occupation of Alcatraz Island from 1969–1971, and the occupation of Wounded Knee, SD, in 1973.
In 1976, only 14 years after the full extension of voting rights to Native Americans and only 11 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, Janet McCloud looked around the room at her audience of 400 and asked, in a moment of deep frustration,
“How many of you feel secure in your future? How many of you feel you have rights or a real choice in elections?”
Her co-panelist Sally Fixico responded presciently:
“It’s like the fingers of your hand; if you fight with one at a time, they’ll cut you down. If you meet them with one mighty fist, they can’t beat you. This fist is all of us — women, Indians, Blacks, sexual minorities, Chicanos, Asian Americans — all of us!”
While women participated in these actions and contributed vital support, men held most public-facing leadership positions. Women started their own activist groups, such as Women of All Red Nations (WARN), in response to this exclusion. Founded in 1974 by Janet McCloud (1934-2003, Tulalip), a veteran leader of the Washington fish-ins, Madonna Gilbert Thunder Hawk (b. 1940, Cheyenne River Sioux), who had occupied Alcatraz and Wounded Knee, and hundreds of other women from 30 tribal communities, WARN published its mission statement in the December 1978 issue of the radical feminist periodical, off our backs calling for attention to a series of obstacles to Native women’s full citizenship, including forced sterilization, family separation, cultural integrity, and treaty rights. In the statement, “Let this be a WARNing,” they declared, “Our fight today is to survive as a people.”
WARN leadership included Katsi Cook for women’s health issues, Janet McCloud on fishing rights, and Yvonne Wanrow for coordinating efforts around political prisoners.
Cook’s activism exemplifies an important facet of the effort to expand Native American women’s citizenship beyond the vote: the fight against environmental racism, particularly against pregnant women’s exposure to contaminants. This is profoundly intertwined with the struggle for reproductive justice, defined as “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, to have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.” Because the body of federal law governing tribal lands offers less environmental protection, oversight, regulation, and enforcement than most state laws, Native American communities are disproportionately exposed to environmental contaminants and suffer from related health issues. For example, when Akwesasne Mohawk women grew worried about widespread pollution in the St. Lawrence Seaway, Sherrill Elizabeth Tekatsitsiakwa “Katsi” Cook, an activist and midwife, founded the Mother’s Milk Monitoring Project and documented high levels of harmful industrial chemicals passing to infants through breast milk. Cook’s ongoing activism influenced the data collected and reported by Superfund sites, offering a broader perspective for reproductive rights beyond access to abortion, and recovered Native birthing practices as a method of community resistance and survival.
Wanrow, a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, had been convicted of murder in 1972 for killing a known child molester who had approached her son, then tried to break into her home. The case galvanized the feminist campaign for women’s self-defense, and set a precedent for instructing juries in cases of self-defense to consider what a “reasonably prudent woman” would do in a situation that threatened her or her children. The Supreme Court of Washington reversed Wanrow’s conviction in 1977. A feminist and Native American rights activist ever since, Wanrow travels widely to speak on equal rights and justice for women and indigenous people to this day.
In addition to organizing, fundraising, public speaking, and publishing, Native American women also entered public office. Wilma Mankiller (1945-2010) became the first woman Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation in 1985, reminding her opponents that objections to Native women in positions of authority were a colonial imposition. Over the course of her 10 years as chief, Mankiller worked to improve the nation’s education and healthcare, implementing Head Start and jobs programs, and encouraging more women to engage in politics — because, as she put it, “If we do not participate, then decisions will be made without us.” More recently, 2018 saw the first Native American women elected to Congress: Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) from New Mexico, and Sharice Davids (Ho-Chunk) from Kansas.
Despite these victories, the work of equality and justice for Native American women and girls remains far from complete, and grim statistics show an ongoing epidemic of domestic abuse, sexual violence, trafficking, and deadly assault. According to the Indian Law Resource Center, the inability of Indian nations to prosecute non-Indians leaves many crimes against women in Native communities unpunished: “By their own account, between 2005 and 2009, U.S. attorneys declined to prosecute 67% of the Indian country matters referred to them involving sexual abuse and related matters.” Over 80 percent of Native women, girls, and LGBTQ2S people have experienced violence, with 50 percent experiencing sexual violence. Rates of murder and domestic violence are, in some communities, 10 times the national average.
Meanwhile, new barriers to the franchise arise at the state level, as in North Dakota just prior to the 2018 elections. When the Supreme Court declined to overturn a voter ID law that required proof of a residential address, many members of the Standing Rock Sioux who used P.O. boxes or other nontraditional addresses were forced to scramble for new forms of identification, leading Standing Rock Chair Mike Faith to pointedly state, “We also have a right to vote for whoever we want, and we can’t be challenged every time.” And with COVID-19 disproportionately impacting reservation communities, many Native Americans face daunting obstacles to voting, with shuttered election offices and limited postal capacity adding long-distance travel and increased cost to the act of casting a ballot.
Drawing on centuries of activism for Native sovereignty and cultural integrity, political rights, environmental and health protections, and more, Native American women’s struggle for full citizenship continues.
Read more from our suffrage centennial series:
- Commemorating an Incomplete Victory: The 19th Amendment at 100
- Why Suffrage? A Broader Look At Women’s Collective Action in the 19th Century
- The Many “Official” Colors of the Suffrage Movement
- White Supremacy and the Suffrage Movement
- “Girls in Caps and Gowns”: The Deltas March for Suffrage
- Obstacles to Suffrage after 1920
- “Get Ready to Vote:” Black Women after the Voting Rights Act
- Fighting Back: Women of Color and the Ongoing Struggle for Citizenship Beyond the Vote
- The Suffrage Centennial: Righting, and Rewriting, Historical Wrongs
- Native American Voting Rights Coalition
- National Congress of American Indians Native Vote
- Four Directions
- National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center
- Mending the Sacred Hoop
- American Indian Community House
- Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women
- StrongHearts Native Helpline
- Native Youth Sexual Health Network
- Indigenous Environmental Network
Written by Jeanne Gutierrez, Curatorial Scholar, Center for Women’s History
I would like to thank the 2019-2020 Teen Leaders for their valuable contributions to the portaits of Zitkala-Ša, Grace Thorpe, Madonna Thunder Hawk, Yvonne Wanrow, and Wilma Mankiller featured in Women March’s digital interactive.