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Wednesday, June 5, 2024

June 5, 2024: The Indian Citizenship Act: Nipo Strongheart

[100 years ago this week, President Calvin Coolidge signed the Indian Citizenship Act. That landmark legislation was the product of work from a number of influential and inspiring individuals, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of them, leading up to a weekend tribute to 21st century figures continuing the fight!]

On three ways to contextualize an influential performer and activist.

For a special weekend follow-up to a weeklong blog series on the awesome show Longmire, I wrote about a trio of 20th century (and in one case continuing into our 21st century moment) Native American pop culture icons, including Nipo Strongheart (1891-1966). Strongheart’s popular performances of Native American stories and histories, from the Wild West Shows to the Lyceum and Chautauqua circuits to silent films, offer one clear way to contextualize his career, and so I’d ask you to check out that first hyperlinked post and then come on back for a couple other contexts.

Welcome back! While Strongheart can and should be connected across time to other popular performers like the ones I highlighted in that post, he was also adept at nsetworking within his own moment, and particularly at connecting to politicians who could serve as allies in his efforts to build support for Indian Citizenship. For example, Strongheart became close with Melville Clyde Kelly, a Republican Congressman from Pennsylvania who was first elected in 1912 and went on to become an influential voice in the House across his more than 20 years in office. Strongheart consistently participated in and even held rallies for Kelly in order to gain his support for a hypothetical Indian Citizenship bill, and could thus be described as a political lobbyist, a term and role that we might associate with later in the century but that had been part of political discourse for almost a century by this time. The term is sometimes (perhaps often) used with some negative connotations, but the simple truth is that very little gets passed by Congress without lobbying, and Strongheart’s specific efforts were important in the move toward the Citizenship Act.

Strongheart didn’t just lobby Congresspeople like Kelly, though—he also presented them, and the whole institution, with petitions featuring thousands of signatures he had gathered while on his speaking tours. As this article from scholars Maggie Blackhawk, Daniel Carpenter, Tobias Resch, and Benjamin Schneer argues, petitions have been a central part of the workings of Congress since its 1789 origins, yet have been significantly under-studied compared to other documents like laws or speeches (a situation these scholars have worked to help rectify by creating the Congressional Petitions Database). That under-studying means I can’t speak with any real authority about which figures have been the most influential across American history in terms of gathering and presenting such petitions to Congress, but it seems clear that Strongheart has to be on that list, and that his decade or so of consistent petitioning was an important factor in the eventual drafting and passage of the Indian Citizenship Act. One more reason to better remember this compelling early 20th century American.

Next influential individual tomorrow,


PS. What do you think?

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