Kamala Harris broke gender and race barriers this year as the first woman, first black person and first person of Asian descent to be elected vice president.
But historians and Native Americans are also revisiting the legacy of Charles Curtis, whose Kaw Nation ancestry gives him a claim as the first “person of color” to serve as a vice president, although the current use of the term emerged decades later.
Mr. Curtis, who served under President Herbert Hoover from 1929 to 1933, has often referred to the novelty of his experience in public service, speaking of his rise “from Kaw tepee to Capitol Hill,” as his Senate biography notes.
Indigenous artifacts adorned his desk, he posed for photographs in an Indigenous headdress, and he referred to himself as “an eighth Kaw Indian and a one hundred percent Republican,” the biography says.
However, with his acceptance of his legacy came a legacy that some historians and advocates say has undermined indigenous land rights.
‘One of our own men’
Mr. Curtis was born in 1860 in Kansas Territory to a white father and mother of Kanza descent, and spent his youth among the Kanza, who are now part of the Kaw Nation.
He learned the language and excelled in horseback riding, according to the Senate. And he continued his early education in Topeka, commuting between the city and the reserve, said Crystal Douglas, who runs the Kanza Museum in Kaw City, Okla.
Mr. Curtis was ultimately elected as the county attorney, as well as the Senate and House of Representatives. Mr. Hoover chose him as his running mate in 1928, possibly because of his popularity in the pastoral Midwest.
Many native chiefs believed that a man growing up with a tribe would look out for their interests. But part of his legacy, historians say, is eclipsed by his role as the original author of the Curtis Act of 1898, which orchestrated the allocation of indigenous lands and reduced tribal leadership.
“There is pride in the Kanza, that one of their own has become vice president of the United States,” said Mark Brooks, administrator of the Kaw mission of the Kansas State Historical Society. “But I would say some would pick that aside and refer to Curtis Law and what it actually did.”
According to the original documents provided by the historical society, Mr. Curtis is referred to as “one of our own men” by a tribal chief, Chief Washungah, who spoke on Capitol Hill in 1900 on behalf of tribal lands under treaties with the government.
“The whites are getting richer on the land that has been treated,” Chief Washungah told Indian Commissioner William A. Jones, according to the documents.
He added: “I am getting older and realize that I cannot live any longer, so I speak for the children now. I want them to stay on the land and get good land.
Mr. Jones, in return, told the Chief that “your business has been carefully handled by your representative in Congress,” in a reference to Mr. Curtis.
Mr. Curtis also had Osage ancestry, according to the Office of Indian Affairs.
Ms Douglas, the director of the Kanza Museum, said Mr Curtis “has done wonderful things” for his people and introduced bills supporting women’s suffrage and child labor laws. She said Mr. Curtis’ personal papers show he was “disappointed” with how the Curtis Act ultimately damaged tribal identity.
Dr R. David Edmunds, a retired University of Texas at Dallas historian, said Curtis represented the 19th century approach to American indigenous policy.
“Curtis is the last breath of the old way, and the country is moving away from him,” he said. “He kind of got forgotten because of it.
In 1936, when the coffin bearing Mr. Curtis’ body was transported by train from Washington to Kansas, “thousands” were to honor him, according to New York Times coverage of his funeral.
Then it fell into relative obscurity, until this year, as Ms. Harris’ selection on a major party ticket renewed interest in her stature as the highest person of Indigenous descent within the federal government.
In October, reporting on Ms. Harris’ preparations for a debate, the Indian Country Today news site noted that at least two Native Americans had sought the vice-presidency in recent decades.
One was LaDonna Harris, a Comanche citizen, candidate for the Citizens Party in 1980 with Barry Commoner; the other, Winona LaDuke of White Earth Nation, was the Green Party candidate for vice-president in 1996 and 2000, alongside Ralph Nader.
Laura Harris, daughter of LaDonna Harris, said in an interview Monday that she and her mother found out more about Mr Curtis while preparing for his campaign.
“You want people to know that we were politically active in the 1800s as well as today,” she says. “And we served in the government and were included in the government.”
“But it’s almost a fluke,” she added. “He did things that today we think weren’t very progressive. But it was his time.
Ms. LaDuke said that although Indigenous women inspired her run, “I just think it’s remarkable that one Indigenous person was elected Vice President. And a lot of people didn’t know it.