The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Harris is the first female, Black and Asian vice president. But not the first VP of color.

Charles Curtis, center, and a Native American, right, in 1929. (Harris & Ewing Collection/Library of Congress)

Vice President Kamala D. Harris is a trailblazer in many ways. She is the first female vice president. The first Black vice president. The first South Asian vice president. And, perhaps, the first vice president to sport Chuck Taylors.

But, as some have mistakenly claimed, she is not the first multiracial vice president or the first one of color. That distinction belongs to Charles Curtis, who served as vice president to Herbert Hoover from 1929 to 1933. Curtis’s mother was a Native American who belonged to the Kaw Nation, and he was raised on a reservation by his maternal grandparents, where he spoke the Indigenous language and lived in a tepee.

Kaw territory originally spanned across what is now eastern and northern Kansas. The state got its name from “Kanza,” what European explorers and traders called the Kaw, according to the Kaw Nation website. As White settlers moved West and disease decimated the Kaw, a series of treaties shrank Kaw territory by 99 percent.

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Kaw people who were classified by Whites as “full bloods” and “half-breeds” were assigned different allotments of land. Curtis’s mother and maternal grandparents were on “Half Breed Reservation No. Four,” directly across the river from Topeka, where they ran a ferry business, according to a Senate biography. His father was a White man who didn’t provide a particularly stable home for his son; he left altogether after Curtis’s mother died when he was 3.

Curtis moved with his grandparents to the main reservation, where he lived until he was 9 or 10. His first language was Kanza, and he recalled later, “I had my bows and arrows and joined the other boys in shooting arrows at nickels, dimes, and quarters which visitors would place in split sticks.”

In his teen years, he was sent back to Topeka to live with his paternal grandparents, who wanted to “civilize” him, but he rebelled. Having spent his youth riding bareback, he soon became a locally famous horse jockey, called “The Indian Boy” or “Indian Charley.”

“His mounts made a lot of money for the local gamblers and prostitutes who bet on him,” according to the Senate biography, “and he recalled that after one race a madam bought him ‘a new suit of clothes, boots, hat and all,’ and had a new jockey suit made for him.”

Then the Kaw, whose population had shrunk to about 500, were forced to move to a reservation in Oklahoma. Curtis was still on the tribal rolls and tried to rejoin his grandparents on the journey, but his grandmother discouraged it. She wanted him to go to school and assimilate into White society.

“I took her splendid advice,” he later recounted, “and the next morning as the wagons pulled out for the south, bound for Indian Territory, I mounted my pony and with my belongings in a flour sack, returned to Topeka and school.”

It was a turning point, and though Curtis never hid his ancestry or tried to “pass” for White, he spent the rest of his life pushing Native American assimilation plans, for himself and for all Indigenous people.

He studied law, and by 21 was admitted to the Kansas bar. He sold the “half-breed” land he had inherited from his mother into plots for houses. He married and had three kids and then entered the world of politics — first as a county attorney and then as a member of the House.

In Washington, Curtis was known for his winning personality. He wrote down and memorized the names and families of everyone he met, so he could always ask about a colleague’s wife or children by name. His colleagues just called him “Indian.” A 1900 Washington Post article used offensive language to describe Kaw men and women celebrating his reelection as “Big Chief Charles.” They would “dance for hours” around a photo of Curtis, the article claimed.

He was also on the House Indian Affairs Committee, and drafted multiple bills to “protect” Native Americans that actually further eroded their sovereignty. He continued to support the assimilation policies of the era, and advocated for Native American boarding schools. In 1902, he wrote the very bill that “legally obliterated the [Kaw] tribe,” according to the Kaw Nation website.

Curtis was first appointed to the Senate in 1907. At the time, senators were chosen by state legislatures, and he lost renomination after a dispute over tariffs. But with the passage of the 17th Amendment, which changed Senate election to the popular vote, he was reelected in 1914.

By the 1920s, Curtis was the Senate majority leader. He supported prohibition, high tariffs and women’s suffrage. To the public, he was known for his quiet demeanor, but in Senate backrooms he could negotiate any deal his party needed.

In 1928, he put himself forward as a candidate for president, but had to settle for Herbert Hoover’s running mate. As vice president, he decorated his office with Native American artifacts and regularly met with tribal leaders.

Hoover and Curtis were not close — Curtis was only picked to unite different factions of the Republican Party of the day — and he was rarely invited to Cabinet meetings or public appearances with the president. In the 1932 musical “Of Thee I Sing,” a character based on Curtis can get into the White House only by taking a public tour.

It may be just as well he didn’t play an important role, since Hoover is largely remembered as one of the worst presidents in American history. His feckless response to the 1929 stock market crash undoubtedly made the ensuing Great Depression worse. Hoover, and Curtis along with him, were voted out after one term. Curtis spent the rest of his life practicing law in Washington. He died in 1936 and was buried in Topeka.

At its lowest, the Kaw Nation dwindled to fewer than 200 people. In 1960, its Oklahoma reservation was lost when it was inundated with water to form a reservoir. In 2000, the last “full-blooded” Kaw died; the Kanza language almost died with him.

But the Kaw Nation has persevered. The tribe is once again federally recognized and now numbers nearly 3,600 people. Kaw children are no longer pushed to “assimilate” the way Curtis was but instead take lessons to revive the Kanza language. When asked on the phone how members of the Kaw Nation feel about Curtis today, a representative said it wasn’t her place to say. Then she hung up.

Read more Retropolis:

Native American tribes were already being decimated. Then the 1918 flu hit.

The 15,000 American Indians shoved aside by Jamestown’s settlers

A Native American tribe once called D.C. home. It’s had no living members for centuries.