Charles Curtis was a remarkable figure in US politics. A member of the Kaw nation through his mother, Curtis was the first Native American and first person of documented non-European heritage to serve as the vice president of the United States. He was also the last person born in a territory, instead of a state, to serve in the office. Curtis held deep connections to his Native ancestry. His first words were in French and Kansa, the Siouan language of the Oklahoma Kaw nation, as taught to him by his mother. He grew up on tribal land that would become a reservation and was greatly influenced by his mother’s parents, who had Kaw, Osage, and Potawatomi ancestry.
After a turbulent childhood in which he survived raids on his land by the rival Cheyenne tribe and his parents’ divorce, Curtis flourished in school and sought higher education with the support of his grandmothers. Given the era and his relative isolation in Kansas, Curtis did not attend law school but rather “read law,” which typically involved an extended apprenticeship, at an established firm in Kansas and was admitted to the Kansas bar in 1881. Before embarking on his political career, Curtis served as a prosecutor for Shawnee County in Kansas.
At only 32 years of age, Curtis started on a lifelong political career that would see him become an enormously popular and charismatic senator before ultimately attaining the second-highest office in the United States. In 1892, Curtis won his first election to the US house of representatives as a Republican representing the district covering Topeka, Kansas. He was re-elected six more times serving the same region. Curtis was widely known as a compassionate leader and was deeply invested in his constituents. He was known to travel his district extensively and make personal connections with his voters, many of whom he treated as friends.
While in the house of representatives, Curtis introduced the Curtis Act of 1898 which expanded the Dawes Act to the “Five Civilized Tribes” of Indian Territory. This act stripped the tribal governments of all of their power and seized their land for allotment by the US government. Curtis’ own experience of leaving his tribal land for education led him to believe that assimilation among whites was the best path to success for Native Americans. A similar act in 1902 stripped his own people, the Kaw, of their tribal land and relocated them from Kansas to Oklahoma.
In 1907, Curtis resigned from the house of representatives due to being elected by the Kansas legislature to a vacant Kansas Senate seat. The 17th amendment, requiring the popular election of US senators, was not ratified until 1913. Democrats took the Kansas house in 1912, which led to Curtis not being re-elected. However, with the ratification of the 17th amendment, a public election was held in 1914 in which Curtis retook his seat through the popular vote. While in the Senate, Curtis served as both the Republican Whip and Majority Leader.