While we are all excited about the large number of women who have been elected into Congress, seeing that only three Native American women have ever been elected into Congress begs the question. How many Native American people have ever been elected into Congress.
The sad answer to this question is eighteen total Native American people have served or are currently serving in the House of Representatives, that number will be nineteen in January when Yvette Herrell is sworn in. Four Native American people have served in the Senate. Only three Native American women have ever been elected into Congress. The first two women were elected in 2018, Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland, and Yvette Herrell was elected in November 2020.
What is interesting is to look at the twenty-three people of Native American ancestry and see if we can see anything culturally significant about these men and women. The first person with Native American ancestry to serve in congress with John Floyd who has Powhatan ancestry. He served in the House of Representatives from 1817-1829. It takes about forty years for another Native American to serve in Congress.
Hiram Revels who was a member of the Lumbee Tribe was appointed to the Senate and served from February 1870 until March 1871 when he resigned to become President of Alcorn State University. Revels is also the first Black man to serve in the US Senate. Revels was appointed the state legislatures picked the Senators. So Revels was elected by Mississippi’s state legislature to finish out the term of their last Senator who had resigned in 1861.
Charles Curtis was technically the first Native American elected to the US Senate by a popular vote. The 17th Amendment passed in 1913 and Curtis served from January 1907- January 1913 and from March 1915- March 1929. He resigned in 1929 to become the first Native American Vice President under Herbert Hoover.
Robert Owen served from December 1907-March 1925. The last Native American person who has served in the US Senate was Ben Campbell who served from January 1993- January 2005 when he retired.
After John Floyd, the next person to serve in the US House of Representatives with Native American ancestry was Richard Cain who served from March 1873-March 1875 and March 1877- March 1879.
From 1879 until the present day there may be one or two Native American people serving in the House on Average. Right now we are at an all-time high of four House members with one more coming in January.
Why, historically, have there been so few Native American people serving in high office? Congress did not give ALL Native American people citizenship until 1924 and voting rights for Native Americans were state-controlled. Some states banned Native Americans from voting until 1957. Congress had passed the Dawes General Allotment Act in 1884 which gave citizenship to Native Americans who gave up their tribal affiliation. Congress also passed the Indian Naturalization Act in 1890 which allowed Native Americans to apply for citizenship.
So we have this group of people who were systematically kept out of higher office who also were dealing with other laws that were systematically eradicating their people and culture, it’s no wonder why so few Native Americans have served in higher office. But as always, we can do better. This Thanksgiving while you are grateful for the blessings that you do have and you are telling the completely sanitized version of the Thanksgiving story that we tell children, remember that Native American people, who were here first have only ever had 23 people elected into Congress, and what that says about representative government.