On Saturday, November 7, news broke that Joe Biden had won the 2020 presidential election. Biden’s win also means that Kamala Harris will become the vice president. This win is extremely historic as Harris will be the first female, Black, and Asian vice president, the first child of immigrants to become vice president, and the first HBCU alum to become vice president. These are all great accomplishments for Harris, however, media outlets have been making the mistake of stating that she is the first person of color to become vice president. As implied before, this is not true; the first person of color to become vice president was Charles Curtis.
Curtis was born in 1860 to a white father and a Native American mother. His mom is of Kanza descent, making her part of the Kaw Nation. In his early life, Curtis immersed himself with his fellow Kanza people, he became fluent in his tribe’s language, and while acquiring his early education, he would travel from the reservation to the city and vice versa.
Curtis would have his start in the political world by becoming a county attorney. He then went on to serve in the Senate and then in the House of Representatives. Ultimately, Herbert Hoover offered him the opportunity to be his running mate for the 1928 presidential election, a role he would eventually fulfill from 1929 to 1933.
Curtis honored his Native American heritage while serving as vice president, decorating his office with Native American artifacts. In addition, he was often seen wearing a Native American headdress while being photographed.
While in office, Curtis made sure that any future legislation would benefit his fellow Native Americans. He also instilled bills that would secure women’s right to vote and protect children under child labor laws. Curtis, however, was not free from controversy-he enabled the Curtis Act of 1898, which allowed Native American lands to be seized, which resulted in a decrease in the amount of local tribal leadership. Personal papers belonging to Curtis were found, and they expressed his dismay at how the Curtis Act of 1989 tarnished his tribal identity.
While Kamala Harris’ vice presidential win is historic, it is important that we become aware of Charles Curtis, the first Native American and first person of color to become vice president. Native Americans are largely underrepresented and much of their history is unknown and whitewashed. By educating ourselves on our country’s history, we can hopefully continue to make progressive change in the representation of our leaders.