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Challenging American Boundaries: Indigenous People and the “Gift” of U.S. Citizenship

  • Kevin Bruyneel (a1)


On June 2, 1924, President Calvin Coolidge signed into law the Indian Citizenship Act (ICA), which unilaterally made United States citizens of all indigenous people living in the United States. This new law made citizens of approximately 125,000 of the 300,000 indigenous people in the country (the remainder were already U.S. citizens). Usually, people who have been excluded from American political life see the codi- fication of their citizenship status as an unambiguously positive political development. In the case of indigenous people and U.S. citizenship, however, one cannot find such clear and certain statements. All indigenous people certainly did not look at U.S. citizenship in the same light; in fact, very few saw it as unambiguously positive. This study demonstrates that the indigenous people who engaged the debate over U.S. citizenship came to define themselves, in various ways, as “ambivalent Americans,” neither fully inside nor fully outside the political, legal, and cultural boundaries of the United States. This effort to define a form of ambivalent American-ness reflects a significant tradition in indigenous politics, which involves indigenous political actors working back and forth across the boundaries of American political life to secure rights, resources, and/or sovereignty for the indigenous people they represent.



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A previous version of this essay was presented at the 2002 meeting of the American Political Science Conference in Boston, MA. I thank my colleague Priscilla Yamin for her work in organizing the panel, and Victoria Hattam and Ruth O'Brien for their constructive suggestions and encouraging words regarding the paper. I am also, and always, indebted to the advice and close reading of Ms. Yamin, Joe Lowndes, Edmund Fong, Ron Krabill, Catherine Celebrezze, Marjorie Feld, Michael Fein, and Pagan Kennedy. The comments of three anonymous SAPD reviewers were extremely helpful in pointing to sections of the paper that required more clarity and components of the argument that deserved a finer edge, especially with regard to the relevance of the study of indigenous people's politics to American politics in general. Finally, I am ever grateful to the Board of Research of Babson College for providing funds to support my work and to the staff of Babson College's Horn Library for their consistent and excellent research assistance.



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