Roberta Haines

Katrin H. Lamon Resident Scholar


Citizenship Bound to the Promised Land: An Investigation of the Status of Indigenous People in the United States

Full membership in the United States was contested by Native people at the time of the 1924 American Indian Citizenship Act, resulting in a unique status still puzzling to political theorists. In her dissertation, Roberta Haines brings the case of Native American citizenship to discussions in political theory and challenges current trends that argue for weakened group rights and identity as the means to political and social stability.

In the centuries of negotiation between the United States and indigenous people, unique arrangements evolved that are difficult to categorize in the language of liberty, equality, group rights, or citizenship most familiar to political theorists. "My work reinterprets the official U.S. policy toward indigenous nations to show its national agenda of assimilation, a course determined by early colonial positions and the momentum of building a nation-state," said Haines.

Although indigenous tribes are semi-sovereign nations who negotiated with the U.S. to secure protection in exchange for significant territorial concessions, the U.S. wanted to quickly settle relationships with all Native peoples. At first the U.S. thought a militarily enforced unilateral treaty could move tribes beyond its borders, but when the Iroquois and Cherokee, disturbed by this display of coercive tactics, began organizing in defense, the U.S. leadership reconsidered. They chose a policy designed to pacify their neighbors: persistently encouraging tribes to withdraw further west then absorbing any individuals or small groups remaining in its path as it grew. This informal status of Native people was formally articulated in 1828 by U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall who recognized native people as aliens, while declaring that tribes were "domestic" not "foreign states." If living within tribal territory, tribal people were understood to be citizens of the indigenous Nation. Those who chose to remain within state borders were assimilated, yet usually excluded from the political body and seldom had civil rights.

The legacy of alien status was reinforced repeatedly as the U.S. moved west. Native people were alien occupants of land and resources that the U.S. claimed for itself. Indigenous nations, then remnants of these nations, were forced to move and re-move in a series of western settlement. "The United States made every effort to change tribal people; to civilize them, to Christianize them, then Americanize them. Indians would vanish and in their stead would remain but the memory of a noble race. Native people, on the other hand, had conflicting positions about their place in or with this new nation. They were especially concerned about private property and U.S. citizenship, since these were policy goals the U.S. implemented to transform indigenous people into 'Americans,'" Haines explains.

Using the journals of the Society of American Indians (SAI) and the papers of Gertrude Bonnin, Haines' research shows how an educated group of Native professionals worked to define a place for Native people in the United States as citizens. They argued that citizenship would free Native people from the non-status of "Indians" and establish them on the road to progress and contribution as "Americans."

During the same period, World War I created a critical moment for the question of citizenship as Native men were registered and conscripted into military service. After the war, the U.S. Congress passed an act offering citizenship to Indian veterans, and in 1924 it passed the American Indian Citizenship Act which conferred citizenship upon indigenous people with or without their consent, culminating U.S. policy to assimilate Native people.

"Contemporary citizenship theory addresses Native Americans as one more of many groups in the U.S. My research investigates a new dimension, that Native people enjoy a modified citizenship in the U.S. while they enjoy tribal membership and thus have a unique political relationship with the U.S. It is a relationship sensitive to those who wield political power and must be understood to be protected. Without a clear understanding of the status enjoyed by Native peoples, theorists risk abridging the rights that were so dearly won," commented Haines.

Affiliation at time of award:
Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Political Science, University of California at Los Angeles

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