Interview: On centennial of citizenship act, Southern Ute leaders see cause to reflect rather than celebrate

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16min 24sec
Tom Hesse
Southern Ute Tribal Council Vice Chair Lorelei Cloud standing next to a display honoring Leonard C. Burch at an exhibit marking the 100th anniversary of the Indian Citizenship Act. The exhibit is on display in the Leonard C. Burch building on the Southern Ute Reservation.

The Southern Ute Tribe this month created an exhibit to mark the 100th anniversary of the Indian Citizenship Act. 

They’re marking the anniversary, Lorelei Cloud said, because a law — passed more than a half-century after the 14th Amendment granted citizenship to persons born or naturalized in the United States — addressing the land’s original inhabitants doesn’t ring out as an anniversary worth celebrating. 

“We should have been citizens long before 1924,” Cloud said of the act, also referred to as the Snyder Act, “and so it's a bittersweet moment because we're finally getting recognition even a hundred years after the Snyder Act became effective.” 

Cloud spoke with Colorado Matters at the Leonard C. Burch Building on the Southern Ute Reservation. The Tribe has created an exhibit, but the content reflects more of the successes of the Southern Ute than it does rights bestowed by Congress. 

Cloud notes the Tribe’s successes in graduating Ute language teachers to keep the Tribal language alive, the tribe’s AAA credit rating (“better than the United States’ government credit rating” has been, Cloud notes) and progress on water negotiations. The history of those goals is important context for conversations about the citizenship act, Cloud said. 

“Ironically, when we were putting everything together for the Snyder Act … I was thinking, 20-page document, maybe?” Cloud said. “It's a paragraph, one paragraph gives us citizenship.” 

The Indian Citizenship Act granted Native Americans citizenship, but like many civil rights bills the impact on issues like voting and equal protection was far from immediate. Cloud spoke with Colorado Matters about what the act did, what it didn’t do and the successes of the Southern Ute Tribe that happened in the 100 years since.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

Tom Hesse: Lorelei Cloud, thanks so much for joining me. 

Lorelei Cloud: You're welcome, glad too.

Hesse: What do you think of when you think of the Indian Citizenship Act?

Cloud: So that's a really good question. When I think about the Indian Citizenship Act, I feel like it's a little too late. It's really not something that we want to celebrate. It's a moment in time to recognize all the inequities and challenges that Native Americans have had to deal with since colonization, and so we're still dealing with situations and trying to regain the same type of benefits that everybody else has within the United States.

Hesse: What do most people get wrong or maybe don't understand about the Indian Citizenship Act, The Snyder Act and what it's done?

Cloud: One misconception is that Native Americans received citizenship and they were afforded rights, and they were recognized immediately. That's incorrect. 

My reservation was established in 1868 by a treaty, and the Southern Ute Tribe is made up of two Ute bands: the  Mouache and Caputa bands. Our first tribal government wasn't allowed to form until 1937, so years after becoming citizens. Our first chairman and our tribal council? They were appointed before we ever had elections because they were just starting out in creating their own government. In the 1950s is when we had our first election, and that was for the chairman. Other than that, the council itself was still being appointed during that time. It was really hard as well, too, because the Bureau of Indian Affairs was trying to really keep the Tribe from forming a government, and so the council and whoever was helping to form the government, they all had to meet in secret in order to get everything put into place, which — when my grandmother was telling me these stories — I was really surprised because I thought it would've been a lot easier for them just to meet and put everything together, but that's not what was going on. They actually had to meet in secret. But it's taken my tribe about 50 years to establish our governmental structure that we're using now.

Hesse: What conversations have you had, maybe with Tribal elders, friends, family who have thought about this for a long time — or just maybe with peers of your own — about what feelings about this act have been?

Cloud: We all were on the same lines — which I was surprised — that it's not something, again, to celebrate. We should have been citizens long before 1924, and so it's a bittersweet moment because we're finally getting recognition even a hundred years after the Snyder Act became effective.

Hesse: Tell me about some of the work that has gone in on the tribal end of things to grab some of those rights.

Cloud: I think it's really important to go back a little bit further. You have to remember, Native Americans were the first and oldest inhabitants of this entire continent, not just in the United States. You have to also remember the climate at that time — all the violence and all the chaos that was going on during that time with the Indigenous populations, many of them were wiped out because of people who wanted the land, they wanted the resources, whatever that may be. 

So there were so many lives that were lost, so much bloodshed that had gone on during that time, and when you talked about what's going on currently, we as Native Americans, we still remember those things that were passed on to us. Those stories that our elders told us about what happened and how they came to be and where we're at now. 

Tribes are still trying to revitalize their language that was lost or some of their culture. We're trying to just regain those things that we were separated from because people wanted to dominate us, they wanted to make us like them. So we're still dealing with those effects a hundred years after that 1924 Citizenship Act.

Hesse: It sounds like one of the most important elements of remembering that act is the things that it was trying to fix from before it was even in place and the things that it never quite got to.

Cloud: Again, that's something that we remember every day. A lot of our elders still remember that every day.

Tom Hesse
Southern Ute Tribal Council Vice Chair Lorelei Cloud standing points to members of her family included in a historic photo. The photo is a part of a display marking the 100th anniversary of the Indian Citizenship Act. The exhibit is on display in the Leonard C. Burch building on the Southern Ute Reservation.

Hesse: Even now as we're talking about the anniversary of this, there are state and city and Tribal meetings. The Southern Ute Tribe has been sitting in on meetings on what to do about some of these boarding schools that the state is trying to divest of. I'm sure that's part of this history that you're thinking of.

Cloud: Yes, and also when we talk about the past, too, we don't want to keep reliving some of those errors and re-victimizing people because that trauma stays with people. We talk about trauma all the time and the generational trauma and the things that we're dealing with, that's always going to be part of what we — as Native Americans — what we deal with because of all the things that have happened since 1492.

Hesse: Is that an important consideration when talking about anniversaries like this, that it's not necessarily what you might call a joyous occasion? Is that something that's important, particularly when you're thinking about this exhibit and how the tribe is trying to think about this anniversary?

Cloud: I think so, because regardless of where we're at now, there was so much hardship that took place for, particularly the Southern Ute Tribe, to get to where we're at now. People had gone through a lot of different challenges. We were very, very poor back when I was growing up. We had absolutely nothing, and again, when I was growing up, we didn't know we were poor. We just knew that we lived off the land. We had whatever food we grew, what we ate or whatever water we had is what we had. So we didn't know any different. We didn't know anything else that was going on around the world because we were so disconnected, and when you think about that, for me, for my time period, what had gone on before then, I just can't imagine the things that my ancestors had gone through.

Hesse: Certainly in the time since the act, there's been a lot of successes driven by the tribe, some self-actualized growth that maybe didn't come from Congress. Can you tell me about some of the things that you were alluding to there on what the tribe has done in recent years to advance tribal causes, get tribal representation, get some tribal voices heard?

Cloud: So that's a really good question because we've come a long way. Even though we've come a long way, there's still a lot more work to do. Most of my work, again, is in water and we're trying to normalize Tribal voices being part of the conversations. We've been excluded for such a long time. When the Colorado Water Compact was signed, it was two years prior to us being citizens, and so Tribes weren't even really mentioned in the compact. We're playing catch up to be equal to what everybody else has. If you're not able to have the same opportunities as everyone else and you're constantly struggling, it's very, very difficult for you to catch up.

Hesse: I’ll just note for the listener, you're the first Tribal representative on the Colorado Water Conservation Board. What else do you think of maybe in the context of this act that you see are the next frontiers of driving some of that change and getting some of those rights and representations for the Southern Ute tribe?

Cloud: For the Southern Ute tribe, I think we've done very well for ourselves — even though it was very challenging back in the 1960s for us — but you have to go back a little bit further. When we talk about the Snyder Act and how it pertains to what we're doing now, the Snyder Act gave us citizenship. 

In order for — again, back to economic development — to buy a house, to get a bank account, to do anything, you need to be a United States citizen. We didn't have that until 1924. The 14th Amendment was put into place in (1868), which gave everyone citizenship that were born in the United States, except for Tribes. And so there's a large gap of time when we didn't have anything, you weren't put into a category of being able to have citizenship, although Native Americans contributed a lot to this country. We are the largest ethnicity to participate in any type of military in the different branches of the military.

Before 1924, if you were in the military after your service, you could have citizenship. If you were Native American and you accept an allotment, then you can have citizenship. If you're a female Indigenous person and married a white male, then you can have citizenship. That was prior to 1924. During 1924, if you didn't fit into that category, you didn't have that, so you couldn't even get a bank account, you couldn't buy a home, but they wanted you to be like everybody else. And so once we got citizenship, that didn't really fix everything because you still didn't have the right to vote. If you didn't have the right to vote, how are you going to participate in what was going on in your government? So now again, tribes are still trying to catch up.

Hesse: A big portion of citizenship always comes with voting, and the Colorado Secretary of State's office does voter turnout reports and voting on Southern Ute land in 2016 was 46%. In 2020, it jumped all the way up to 70%. What goes into that sort of growth and getting this tribe as engaged as it's been lately?

Cloud: That is a great question, and I'm very grateful that we've had a big increase in our voting, and what has happened is, in 1965 when we had the (Voting Rights Act), that gave us the right to vote, but it wasn't until late 1970s that we actually were able to vote. That was because of several different things. It was because voter centers would not recognize Tribal ID cards. You had to take a literacy test in order to vote, or that you had to have a regular address, you couldn't have a post office box, which is  kind of unheard of across Indian Country. 

Another one was that they moved the voting centers far away from reservation lands, so it became an even longer, bigger hardship for Tribes, Tribal members to participate. Now under our new secretary (Jena Griswold) , she allowed us to have voting centers on the reservation for us. We had our voting center at our Southern Ute museum, which allowed access to our Tribal members to vote and also the rest of our community to also vote, which again gave us a big increase in the number of votes from this area, which was needed and had been unheard of prior to that. 

Hesse: The Native American Rights Fund, which is headquartered over in Boulder, they put out a report on Native American voting. A big takeaway from that report is that Native Americans across this country are a very powerful voting block. A couple of examples that they listed in the report: in 2002, South Dakota Senator Tim Johnson was re-elected by 500 votes when the final ballots came in from the Pine Ridge Reservation. In 2010, Lisa Murkowski, senator from Alaska won a write-in campaign as a U.S. Senator based on tremendous turnout and organization from Alaska Natives and the villages there. With that in mind, this is an election year of course, should politicians be making a point in prioritizing visiting and stopping and meeting with voters in places like the Southern Ute Reservation?

Cloud: Yes, they should. You have to remember, we're a sovereign nation. We, as Native people, we basically have dual citizenship. We're a citizen of our Tribe, and then we're a citizen of the United States. We're also, again, citizens of our state, our county, and so all of these officials really should be coming to us and talking with us. Because we're a sovereign nation, we want to have that government-to-government consultation regardless if they're a candidate or not, but they should also see us as vital to this entire process. They really should come to us because once they're in office, they will need to come to us as a government-to-government relationship building because we are going to make sure that we protect our tribal sovereignty.

Hesse: Vice Chair Cloud. Thanks so much for the time.

Cloud: You're welcome. Thank you.