The election results might still be a little hazy, but one thing is clear: If sworn in as vice president, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., won’t be the first person of color to serve in the role, as many people believe.
You won’t hear this from the media, but that already happened nearly a century ago when a different U.S. Senator was elevated to the role.
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His name was Charles Curtis, a Republican who had been Senate Majority Leader before becoming President Herbert Hoover’s vice president.
Curtis’ mother was part French and part indigenous from several tribes, and through her he was a direct descendant of Chief White Plume of the Kanza, or Kaw, tribe as well as Chief White Hair of the Osage.
Or as he told audiences later in life, he was “one-eighth Kaw Indian and a one-hundred percent Republican.”
Curtis was raised by his grandparents on a reservation, spoke French, English and the tribal language of Kansa, and blended in as one of the local boys as a result.
“I had my bows and arrows,” he said, according to his official Senate biography, “and joined the other boys in shooting arrows at nickels, dimes, and quarters which visitors would place in split sticks.”
The Washington Post notes he even lived in a teepee as a youth, and that when he left the reservation as a teen he was known as “Indian Charlie” in Topeka, where he was a horse jockey.
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He went into law… then politics… and ultimately, the vice presidency.
“It’s an incredible achievement to climb as high as he did,” Oklahoma attorney and historian Brett Chapman – whose great-great-grandfather, Horse Chief Eagle, took part in the Hoover-Curtis inauguration – told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “To be able to do this in his time is just crazy to me.”
However, Chapman said many Native Americans have mixed feelings about the vice president due to the Curtis Act. The Oklahoma Historical Society says the act “helped weaken and dissolve Indian Territory tribal governments by abolishing tribal courts and subjecting all persons in the territory to federal law.”
It gave reservations towns, roads, and schools. But it also meant new tribal legislation had to be approved by the president, which led to a loss of independence.
“Ironically, Charles Curtis, himself of Indian blood, was responsible for the act that helped pave the way for the demise of the Indian nations and for the statehood of Oklahoma,” the historical society notes.
And historians say the Curtis Act is as much a part of his legacy among Native Americans as his ascension to the vice presidency.
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“There is pride with the Kanza, that one of theirs rose to be vice president of the United States,” Mark Brooks, an administrator for the Kaw Mission in the Kansas State Historical Society, told the New York Times. “But I would say that some would pick that apart and refer to the Curtis Act and what it actually did.”
Curtis is little-remembered today, but he was immortalized in one sense: The U.S. Senate website notes he was the basis for the hapless Vice President Alexander Throttlebottom in the 1932 Gershwin musical, “Of Thee I Sing.”
Throttlebottom’s only way to get into the White House was via a tour – a nod to Curtis’ chilly relationship with Hoover, who disliked him, largely avoided him and didn’t invite him to cabinet meetings.
In the play, Throttlebottom wasn’t even recognized during the tour. When another visitor wondered how the veep got the job, Throttlebottom replied: “Well, they put a lot of names in a hat, and he lost.”
And when asked what the vice president does, Throttlebottom explained: “Well, he sits in the park and feeds the peanuts to the pigeons and the squirrels, and then he takes walks, and goes to the movies. Last week, he tried to join the library, but he needed two references, so he couldn’t get in.”
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Curtis went back into law practice after leaving office. He died of a heart attack just three years later, in 1936, at the age of 76.
— Walter W. Murray is a reporter for The Horn News. He is an outspoken conservative and a survival expert.