By Rebecca Price Janney, May 3 2017 01:19PM
We tend to think of ours as an enlightened age and that all, or at least most, who came before us were pretty narrow-minded. Although I don’t necessarily buy into that train of thought, I’m always pleased whenever I find instances to the contrary, which happened several days ago.
My family and I were watching a bio-pic of the great Olympic athlete Jim Thorpe, who was a Native American who led a turbulent life after winning the world’s attention in the 1912 Stockholm games. In one scene, years later a beaten-down Thorpe has gone to the Los Angeles Olympics at the invitation of his former coach, Pop Warner. During the parade of nations in the opening ceremony, the stadium announcer introduces the Vice President of the United States, Charles Curtis. In the movie, Pop Warner leans closer to Thorpe and says, “The announcer forgot to add just one thing.” “What’s that?” Thorpe asks. Warner responds, “Indian.”
I was fascinated by how a Native American had risen to such prominence in the early 20th century and, like a good 21st century historian, I immediately conducted an internet search. I discovered Curtis served as Vice President under Herbert Hoover from 1929-1933, and before that, he’d been a prominent Republican leader in the Senate, and in the House of Representatives before that. His modest beginnings and rise to power are the stuff of American legend.
Curtis’s great great (maternal) grandfather was the Kansa-Kaw chief, White Plume, who assisted Lewis and Clarke on their historic journey in 1804. After an 1825 treaty, the Kaw Indians were allotted a two million acre reservation around Topeka, Kansas with another series of fee simple land grants set aside for “half-breeds.” White Plume’s daughter had married a French-Canadian trapper, and their daughter also married a white man. Together they established a successful ferry business at the Kansas River on some of those allotted lands.
Charles Curtis was born on January 25, 1860 in Topeka, and he learned to speak French and Kansa from his mother. She died when he was just three years old, and initially he lived with his father’s parents while Orren Curtis was serving in the Civil War. (His father’s story is pretty fascinating in itself!) At the age of five, Charles went to live with his maternal; grandparents on the Kaw Reservation, learning how to ride Indian ponies bareback and even becoming a prairie horse jockey for a short time. His nickname? Indian Charley.
Alas, Curtis was not to earn his living as an athlete. With the encouragement of both his grandmothers, he went to high school in Topeka and afterward studied to become a lawyer. He was admitted to the bar at the age of 21. From that place of responsibility and honor, Curtis began his rise to become an influential political leader, culminating with his election as Vice President in 1928, the first (and only) Native American to hold that office. His wife, Annie Elizabeth Baird, had died five years before he became VP making him the last Vice President to have remained unmarried during his entire time in that position.
After relinquishing the White House to FDR and John Nance Garner in 1933, Curtis remained in Washington, D.C. where he once again practiced law. Three years later, on February 8, 1936, Curtis died of a heart attack and was buried next to his wife back in Topeka.
Incidentally, Hiram Revels was the first Native American to serve in the Senate (1870-1871), and there have been four others, including Curtis. Fourteen have served in the House, beginning with John Floyd of Virginia in 1817; presently, Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma is the only one in the House – the last Senator with Native American ancestry was Ben Campbell of Colorado.