Skip to main content

Looking to the past 100 years since the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act

Native scholars and law professionals gather at Northwestern Pritzker Law for conference on Indigenous sovereignty, community
President Calvin Coolidge posed with Indigenous Americans near the White House on Feb. 18, 1925. In 1924, Congress passed the Indian Citizen Act, which gave citizenship to all Native Americans born in the U.S. Since then, several laws have been implemented in an effort to grant rights for Indigenous tribes. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

Whether through recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, now formally adopted as a holiday by more than a dozen states and 100 cities, the rebuilding of bison herds across the U.S., or recent regulations that require museums to consult with tribes before exhibiting cultural items, 2023 was a year of progress for Indigenous justice.

Native scholars and law professionals from tribal nations who gathered recently at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law for “100 Years Back, 100 Years Forward: Sovereignty, Community, and Indigenous Futures,” a conference co-hosted by Northwestern’s Center for Native American and Indigenous Research (CNAIR), are looking to history and tapping recent momentum.

In June 1924, the United States Congress passed the Indian Citizen Act, which gave citizenship to all Native Americans born in the U.S. Since then, several laws have been implemented in an effort to grant rights for Indigenous tribes, including the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 — a law that was enacted to decrease the U.S. government’s control of Native people’s affairs so they may become a self-governed people.

“We hope that people will recognize that Indian law is American law, and there is no law or policy making that should be happening that does not consider Indigenous peoples,” said Megan Bang, professor of learning sciences at the School of Education and Social Policy and director of CNAIR. “The lack of engagement with Native people presently is a systemic bias that harms our communities.

“We hope that everyone takes up their civic responsibility to insist on Native presence, engagement with Native communities and nations and supports Native leadership — not just for Native people but all people.”

Bang moderated a panel, which included Andrew Johnson from the Indian Chamber of Commerce; Gina Roxas, from the Trickster Cultural Center; Aaron Golding, associate director for the University’s Multicultural Student Affairs; and Ellen Williams from the Illinois Department of Child Welfare. The discussion focused on historic legislation passed at the state and federal levels last year and plans for 2024.

In May, Congress passed legislation recognizing the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation’s ownership of 129 acres of land within the Shabehnay Band Reservation in northern Illinois. A few months later, Illinois lawmakers passed a bill allowing students to wear religious clothing in schools — including traditional Indigenous regalia. That same month, HB 1633 was passed, which requires that Native American history be required curricula for public schools in Illinois.

Illinois also passed HB 3413 authorizing the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, in cooperation with the Illinois State Museum, to create a cemetery on existing state lands for the reburial of repatriated Native American remains and materials.

Chicago has recently seen the effects of the federal Repatriation Act. In January, the Field Museum, home to a large collection of Indigenous artifacts, covered displays containing cultural items to comply with the new regulation, which require institutions prepare all human remains and related objects for repatriation, as well as grant authority to tribes throughout the process, within the next five years.

Tweet this quote

We hope that people will recognize that Indian law is American law.”

Megan Bang
Professor and CNAIR director

Activists’ priorities for 2024 include eliminating the use of native mascots in K-12 schools and universities, land acknowledgement and recognition of the history of the original people by state parks. They also want to highlight the ongoing issue of homelessness, access to health care, gang violence, food sovereignty among Indigenous communities and the continued conversation on citizenship.

“The issues of nationhood and belonging are and will continue to be significant issues,” Bang said. “Tribal leaders and scholars have already noted we are in an era of constitutional reform for tribal nations. This is fundamentally about charting who will count and how our communities will function in the future.”

Advocates believe institutions like Northwestern have a key role in this new era. “We need institutions like Northwestern in order to educate the future judges, future lawyers, future senators about the issues that Indigenous communities are facing,” Williams said. Bang echoed her sentiments.

“We have significant expertise on our campus to support the education efforts from curriculum development to professional development,” she said. “We need to ensure the preparation of educators and educational leaders. We are encouraged by Northwestern’s efforts to enact and develop relationships with tribes and the NAGPRA related laws. Northwestern has the opportunity to show intellectual and ethical leadership and support and serve as a model for other institutions.”

Other panels included “Historical insights from the last 100 years for next 100 years”; “Changes in the perspective for the future”; and “Engage institutions for societal change.” A keynote address was given by Raphael Wahwassuck, a tribal council member of the Prairie Band of Potawatomi Nation — a tribe in Kansas who won a legal case decided by the United States Supreme Court to stop federal auctioning of their land.   

Along with the Law School and CNAIR, the conference was also sponsored by Northwestern’s Kaplan Institute for Humanities, Buffett Institute for Global Affairs, Institute for Policy Research, Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion, School of Education and Social Policy and the Native American Law Students Association.