Friday, June 26, 2015

Charles Curtis

Bias and prejudice are attitudes to be kept in hand, not attitudes to be avoided.

You have probably never heard of Charles Curtis.  It's okay, only a few of us have heard his story.

When I first moved to the East, and often had to answer questions during orientation meetings such as "Where are you from?" and "Where did you grow up?" and variations of such, I finally settled on simply responding, "I was raised on the frontier by Indians."  That usually ended that tedious line of conversation.

Thing is, for most of those who are Eastern-born and raised, Ohio is the frontier, especially when one considers how much of it was settled by The Connecticut Company.  As for the other portion, I was raised by Indians, with whom I fished and hunted and cut wood and shot guns and arrows and chased chickens and ran about on unfettered land filled with the bounty of harvest.  Things have certainly changed.  Because of that, I have a certain affinity for our subject.

Curtis was a slight man, born in 1860.  He was raised on the Kaw tribal reservation outside of Topeka, Kansas, and, although a half-breed, was known as "Indian Charley".  He was fluent in Kaw, French, and English.  He learned to ride a horse bareback the same year he learned to walk.  At the age of eight he and an adult member of his tribe rode to the state capital to request aid from the governor in combating the Cheyenne who were plaguing Topeka at the time.  This journey made Indian Charley's horsemanship rather well known, thus he spent much of his subsequent youth as a highly successful jockey, winning a considerable amount of money for the members of the Kansas underworld.

This, however, did not sit well with his grandmother, especially when gangsters wanted to send Charley to far-away Philadelphia to become a professional jockey.  Instead, she saw to it that he was sent not to a track but to Topeka High School.  While attending classes and living with his grandparents, in a tale numbingly familiar to students of American Indian history, his tribe's homestead in Kansas was moved by the U.S. government to Oklahoma.  Indian Charley's home was now gone, his jockeying days were over, and all that was left to him was a secondary education.  So, he could return to the tribe on the unfamiliar reservation, experience the poverty and alcoholism that goes hand-in-hand with government enabled or enforced dependence, or he could "mainstream" himself into white culture, take what role he could earn, and see to it that tribal life in the United States was somehow, if only in a small way, improved.  Fortunately, he choose the latter.

As was possible in those days, Indian Charley, now known as Charles, read for the law under the tutelage of a handful of Topeka lawyers.  He was admitted to the Kansas bar at the age of 21 and became prosecuting attorney for Shawnee County by the age of 25.  Using his finely honed ability, formed on the reservation and racetrack, to be amiable and knowledgeable about his fellow citizens, Charles Curtis won election to the House of Representatives in 1893.  He was the first American Indian [or, what people tend to call "Native American"] to serve as a congressman.  In 1907, his state selected him to fill a brief term as a replacement senator, making him the first American Indian to serve in the Senate.  Shortly, thereafter, another milestone was reached when he was elected to that position.

While serving in both houses of the Capitol, Curtis sought legislation that eased the life of his tribe and all others gathered under the umbrella of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.  He sought the elimination of the reservation system, replacing it with land grants that enabled Indians to be full property owners and participatory members in society.  In a still-controversial initiative, he sought to encourage the tribal members to seek a less isolated role in society, pushing for "white" education and jobs in a manner that permitted assimilation into the greater culture.

But it was through his skills as a backroom negotiator where his true service to his nation was revealed, as Curtis could coerce and cajole with the best of them, eventually resulting in his election as Senate majority leader in 1925 and, yes, he was the first tribesman so honored.

This was why Herbert Hoover selected him as his running mate in 1928, as his vision and energy was going to be needed in the politico-economic realities of the decade.  Thus, Charles Curtis became the first, and only, American Indian to serve as Vice-President of the United States.  It was a singular honor and a major achievement for the First Nations, not to mention a great aid to the sometimes aloof Hoover.

Throughout his life, Curtis dealt with the realities of bias, however, and came to realize that they are part and parcel of the human condition.  As they cannot be removed, so they must be acknowledged and processed through education and experience.  The best, and really the only, way for that to be realized is through the integration of people, perspectives, experiences, and ideas.  Every piece of legislature introduced or sponsored by Curtis carried this theme.  This is why, in 1923, he proposed the initial version of the Equal Rights Amendment.

After elected office, Curtis remained in Washington D.C. for his final few years, succumbing to a heart attack in 1936.  He is buried in his native Kansas, not too far from where Indian Charley rode those horses, wild and free.  A museum in his honor may be found at his family's house in Topeka.

Oh, and for all of his "firsts", there was one significant "last".  Charles Curtis was the last Vice President to have...facial hair.