Native American Citizenship

the Pamunkey got confirmation in 1917 that they were exempt from the military draft
the Pamunkey got confirmation in 1917 that they were exempt from the military draft
Source: Virginia Chronicle, Richmond Times-Dispatch (21 August 1917)

In the US Constitution that was ratified in 1788, "Indians not taxed" were not counted as citizens when determining a state's population for the number of seats in the US House of Representatives. In contrast, 3/5ths of the number of enslaved people were calculated for state representation.

The US Supreme Court ruled in the 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford decision that Native Americans were qualified to become citizens. In that famous legal case, the court drew a key distinction between two non-white segments of American society in the 1850's.

The justices ruled that nearly every black person, enslaved or not in 1857, was ineligible to become a citizen:1

A free negro of the African race, whose ancestors were brought to this country and sold as slaves, is not a "citizen" within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States.

Native Americans were treated differently, though they were viewed through the same lens of white supremacy (emphasis added):2

The situation of this population was altogether unlike that of the Indian race. The latter, it is true, formed no part of the colonial communities, and never amalgamated with them in social connections or in government. But although they were uncivilized, they were yet a free and independent people, associated together in nations or tribes, and governed by their own laws.

Many of these political communities were situated in territories to which the white race claimed the ultimate right of dominion. But that claim was acknowledged to be subject to the right of the Indians to occupy it as long as they thought proper, and neither the English nor colonial Governments claimed or exercised any dominion over the tribe or nation by whom it was occupied, nor claimed the right to the possession of the territory, until the tribe or nation consented to cede it. These Indian Governments were regarded and treated as foreign Governments, as much so as if an ocean had separated the red man from the white; and their freedom has constantly been acknowledged, from the time of the first emigration to the English colonies to the present day, by the different Governments which succeeded each other. Treaties have been negotiated with them, and their alliance sought for in war; and the people who compose these Indian political communities have always been treated as foreigners not living under our Government.

It is true that the course of events has brought the Indian tribes within the limits of the United States under subjection to the white race; and it has been found necessary, for their sake as well as our own, to regard them as in a state of pupilage, and to legislate to a certain extent over them and the territory they occupy. But they may, without doubt, like the subjects of any other foreign Government, be naturalized by the authority of Congress, and become citizens of a State, and of the United States; and if an individual should leave his nation or tribe, and take up his abode among the white population, he would be entitled to all the rights and privileges which would belong to an emigrant from any other foreign people.

The 14th Amendment in 1868 established birthright citizenship and clarified that blacks who had been born in the United States were automatically citizens. By both custom and court interpretations of various laws, Native Americans were excluded from the political process because the 14th Amendment did not clearly grant citizenship to Native Americans.

Section 2 of the amendment still excluded "Indians not taxed" from being counted towards state representation in the US House of Representatives, facilitating the claim that Native Americans were not eligible to vote:3

Section 1
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
Section 2
Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed...

In 1870 the Senate Judiciary Committee said:4

...the 14th amendment to the Constitution has no effect whatever upon the status of the Indian tribes within the limits of the United States,

The 1887 Dawes Act created a path to citizenship. The law encouraged breaking up reservations, where land was communally held in trust by the US Government, into allotments where individuals had all property rights. Native Americans who accepted an allotment, which brought with it the responsibility to pay taxes, became citizens.

Virginia treated Native Americans living on defined reservations as "wards of the state," comparable to young children and those who were mentally incompetent and unable to represent themselves in court. The Pamunkey and Mattaponi reservations have survived in part because they were represented in legal matters by trustees that were relatively responsible, in contrast to the demise of reservations once held by other tribes.

Trustees were initially chosen by the local county court. In 1799 the Pamunkey gained the right to make their own selection of trustees who would represent the tribe:5

They were White men, usually of some social standing, who acted as political advocates for the Pamunkey and served as mediators between the Indians and the larger society. Unlike some other guardians or overseers of Indian populations, the Pamunkey trustees appear to have assisted the group effectively in maintaining their land and their distinct status as Indians.

In 1917, after the United States entered World War I, the Pamunkey objected to plans to draft men into the US military. Because the Pamunkey were not citizens, they were not taxed and they could not vote. They chose to highlight their diminished status by objecting to being drafted to fight for a government in which they had no political voice or representation.

On August 25, 1917, Chief George Cook testified that:6

...the land and other property of said Pamunkey Tribe of Indians is not subject to taxation by the Commonwealth of Virginia; that said Pamunkey Tribe of Indians have always been wards of the Commonwealth of Virginia, and that the male members thereof have never been allowed to exercise the privilege of voting, and therefore affiant believes that they are not deemed and held citizens within the laws of this State and of the United States, and hence that the members of said Tribe are not properly subject to draft for military service in the present war.

After winning exemption from the draft, several Pamunkey - including Chief Cook's son - then enlisted as volunteers.7

Native Americans born in the United States were finally classified as US citizens after the US Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act on June 2, 1924. At the time, 40% of Native Americans in the United States were still "Indians not taxed" and therefore not citizens.8

Exercising the right of vote required Native Americans to overcome Jim Crow laws designed to restrict the Virginia electorate, including the poll tax and other constraints on registration. The Civil Rights Act of 1965 did not establish social or economic equality, but it did open the doors wider for all citizens to vote.

Federal Recognition of Native American Tribes in Virginia

State Recognition of Native American Tribes in Virginia



1. "On this day, all American Indians made United States citizens," National Constitution Center, June 2, 2023,; "Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857)," National Archives, (last checked November 15, 2023)
2. "Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857)," National Archives, (last checked November 15, 2023)
3. "14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: Civil Rights (1868)," National Archives, (last checked November 15, 2023)
4. "On this day, all American Indians made United States citizens," National Constitution Center, June 2, 2023, (last checked November 15, 2023)
5. "Proposed Finding for Acknowledgement of the Pamunkey Indian Tribe (Petitioner #323)," US Department of the Interior, January 16, 2024, p.24, p.59,; "On this day, all American Indians made United States citizens," National Constitution Center, June 2, 2023, (last checked November 15, 2023)
6. "Deposition of Chief Cook, August 25, 1917," Library of Virginia,; "Why They Served: Indigenous Veterans Of Virginia," The UnCommonwealth blog, Library of Virginia, November 10, 2023, (last checked November 15, 2023)
7. "Deposition of Chief Cook, August 25, 1917," Library of Virginia, (last checked November 15, 2023)
8. "On this day, all American Indians made United States citizens," National Constitution Center, June 2, 2023, (last checked November 15, 2023)

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