Miguel Trujillo was a child of Isleta Pueblo, in New Mexico, just south of Albuquerque, which was inhabited by his ancestors since before Spanish soldiers thought they discovered the country at the end of the 15th century.
Trujillo attended the Albuquerque Indian School, then made a leap to Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kansas, a boarding school created to teach American Indigenous children to be tailors, farmers, shoemakers and blacksmiths. Trujillo wanted more: He went on to the University of New Mexico, where he earned a bachelor’s degree not long before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Trujillo enlisted in the Marines, rose to the rank of sergeant and served as a Marine recruiter. After the war, he and his wife got jobs as teachers at the Bureau of Indian Affairs Day School at Laguna Pueblo, New Mexico, and he studied for a master’s degree. He was a success story with a belief in the power of education – but he wasn’t a citizen in New Mexico.
As the U.S. took and absorbed territory in the 19th century, creating federal and settler lands west of the Mississippi, most Native Americans were not eligible for U.S. citizenship. They were in a juridical limbo: Even naturalization for foreigners was closed to them. The 14th Amendment, in 1868, granted birthright citizenship to all Americans “born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof” – including, in theory, Black Americans; but many if not most Native Americans were still excluded on the grounds they were not taxed and therefore not in American jurisdiction.
In 1924, the U.S. Indian Citizenship Act stated that “all noncitizen Indians born within the territorial limits of the United States” from that date were citizens. But in Colorado, for example, in 1937, the state attorney general told the U.S. solicitor general it was “our opinion” that Native Americans in Colorado still did not have the right to vote.
The rest of the Indigenous people in the U.S. were recognized as citizens under the U.S. Nationality Act of 1940. Yet states still kept them from voting. The New Mexico Constitution said those so prohibited included “idiots, insane persons ... and Indians not taxed.” In other words, any Native American, like Trujillo, who lived on a reservation.
At the beginning of the summer of 1948, Trujillo went to the office of the clerk of Valencia County, New Mexico, which encompassed part of his natal Isleta Pueblo, and said he wanted to register to vote.
Can’t do it, he was told.
Trujillo found a sterling civil rights lawyer, the former New Dealer Felix Cohen, and they sued in U.S. District Court.
In the first week of August that year, a three-judge panel in Santa Fe ruled in their favor, saying Indigenous people such as Trujillo “have responded to the need of the country in time of war ... Why should they be deprived their rights to vote now because they are favored by the federal government in exempting lands from taxation?”
It took another eight years before Indigenous people were allowed to serve on juries in Colorado. Only in 1957 did they obtain the right to vote in Utah. And tribal members were barred from voting in Colorado by literacy requirements until those tests were banned by the U.S. Voting Rights Act of 1970.
Nevertheless, Miguel Trujillo won the right of Indigenous Americans to vote in New Mexico 72 years ago this summer, taking the country one more step down a road to inclusion that always seems longer than we thought it would be – but that is a story for another day.