Tribal members reflect on 100th anniversary of Indian Citizenship Act at Minnesota Capitol

back of a woman speaking at a podium
State Sen. Mary Kunesh, DFL-New Brighton, addresses a crowd of tribal members during American Indian Day on the Hill on Monday.
Ellie Roth | MPR News

Hundreds of members of Minnesota’s 11 sovereign tribal nations gathered at the Capitol to celebrate American Indian Day on the Hill and commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Indian Citizenship Act.

The federal Indian Citizenship Act gave Native Americans U.S. citizenship, but did not guarantee the right to vote, leaving that up to the states. As late as 1948, some states barred Indigenous people from voting. The 1954 Voting Rights Act and other legislation further strengthened tribal members’ rights to vote.

This summer, the Minnesota Secretary of State’s office will publish a voting and elections guide in Ojibwe.

“Let’s face it, the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 should have come much, much earlier,” said Secretary of State Steve Simon. “So we mark the occasion by acknowledging that it was something that came way, way too late.”

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Last year the state began requiring counties provide an additional polling location on tribal land for at least one day every election, once tribes request it.

During speeches celebrating American Indian Day on the Hill, state Sen. Mary Kunesh, DFL-New Brighton, said during a trip to northern Minnesota a few years ago she learned the ways voting was discouraged.

“There were elders that told me they never even knew that they could vote in general elections, they thought they were restricted to tribal elections,” said Kunesh, a descendant of the Standing Rock tribe. “So all these years, they could have been voting for local school boards, city council, county commissioners — any one of the people that represent them.”

a man speaks at an event
The federal Indian Citizenship Act gave Native Americans U.S. citizenship but left the right to vote up to the states.
Ellie Roth | MPR News

Tribal members and lawmakers also took time to reflect on a historic land return in the Upper Sioux Community this year.

“These are things that happen because you demand the respect of sovereign government and government relationships,” said Gov. Tim Walz during a speech in the rotunda. “You are sovereign nations with the right to have responsibility in this building, and deserve to be treated as such.”

This year, lawmakers introduced legislation to transfer state-owned land from the 160,000-acre White Earth State Forest to the White Earth Nation by the end of the decade. The proposal has been met with tension from Becker County and surrounding cities. Lawmakers also introduced a bill to transfer Upper Red Lake back to the Red Lake Nation.