Kamala Harris’s upcoming ascendancy to the vice presidency has been celebrated as a victory for women, for black Americans, and for Indian Americans. But it’s also led to some false claims that she will be the first multiracial vice president. Decades before she was born, a man with Native American heritage served as Herbert Hoover’s vice president from 1929-1933.
Charles Curtis, the son of a white father and a mother with French and Native American heritage, is not well-remembered today, but he was once one of America’s most influential politicians. He became the last person elected to the vice presidency to be born in a U.S territory, and he was the first to be born west of the Mississippi. But he deserves to be remembered for more than his identity and background: He was a vocal opponent of Woodrow Wilson, a strong ally of the suffrage movement, and an early supporter of Zionism.
Curtis’s mother, Ellen Pappan, was of Osage, Kansa, Pottawatomie, and French heritage. He was the great-great-grandson of White Plume, a Kansa chief who had negotiated with the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1804. His first language was not English, but Kansa and French.
His father had been a Civil War veteran, and Curtis was largely raised by his grandparents after his mother died. He became locally famous as the “Indian jockey” on the regional horse tracks of the era. Yet he eventually traded the saddle for desk-jockeying.