Kamala Harris on Saturday made history as America’s first woman, first Black and first South Asian vice president-elect. But she will not be the first person of color to serve as vice president of the United States.
In 1928, Charles Curtis – a Native American lawmaker and member of the Kaw Nation – was elected as President Herbert Hoover’s vice president.
Curtis grew up in North Topeka, Kansas, where he was born to a White father and a one-quarter Kaw Indian mother. He was the great-great grandson of White Plume, a Kaw chief known for offering to help the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1804, according to the US Senate.
He spent much of his childhood living with his maternal grandparents on the Kaw reservation in Council Grove, Kansas. Curtis even spoke Kansa, the Siouan language of the Great Plains, before he learned English.
His ability to speak Kansa allowed him to fit in the tribe comfortably, according to the US Senate website. He also learned to ride ponies and eventually became a winning jockey.
While Curtis hoped to continue living on reservations with his grandmother, she encouraged the young teen to return to Topeka to further his education.
“I took her splendid advice 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,” Curtis said. “No man or boy ever received better advice, it was the turning point in my life.”
Back in Topeka, Curtis became an attorney and later turned his attention to politics. In 1892, Curtis was elected to US Congress, where he served in the House and Senate. As a senator, he was Republican whip, instrumental in helping to prevent Woodrow Wilson from having the US join the League of Nations. In 1928, he lost his bid for the presidential nomination to Herbert Hoover, who tapped him as his running mate.
During his time as a congressman, Curtis became known for sponsoring “An Act for the Protection of the People of the Indian Territory and for Other Purposes,” also known as the Curtis Act of 1898, which did little to protect Indian land.
While the law allowed members of tribes to vote and established public schools on tribal lands, it also helped lead to the disintegration of Indian nations, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society.
Some Indian tribal governments and lands were broken up as a result of the act, which overturned multiple treaty rights “by allocating federal lands, abolishing tribal courts, and giving the Interior Department control over mineral leases on Indian lands,” according to the US Senate website.
Another milestone for people of color
While Curtis made history as the first person of color to become vice president, Harris is breaking barriers of her own.
Women across the US have been fighting for equal rights and representation in American life for centuries. With the election of Harris, a woman has now reached the second highest political office in the country.
On Saturday night, during her first speech as vice president-elect, Harris noted the historic moment.
“While I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last,” she said in Wilmington, Delaware.
“Because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities, and to the children of our country, regardless of your gender, our country has sent you a clear message: Dream with ambition, lead with conviction and see yourselves in a way that others may not, simply because they’ve never seen it before. But know that we will applaud you every step of the way,” she said.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the year Charles Curtis ran for president. It was 1928.