Native Americans in Congress and the Founding of the U.S. Constitution

By NAT Staff

Tom Cole
Identified by Time Magazine as “one of the sharpest minds in the House,” Tom Cole, a member of the Chickasaw Nation, is serving his tenth term. Co-Chair of the Native American Caucus and Deputy Whip for the Republic Conference, Cole has served as both Chairman and Ranking Member on prestigious committees, including Appropriations.

When the Founders met in 1787 to create the U.S. Constitution, there were no contemporary democracies in Europe from which they could draw inspiration. The only forms of government they had encountered were those of the Native American tribes. Of particular interest was the Iroquois Confederacy, who had already formed a multi-state government that ensures individual governance and freedoms. The structure of the Confederacy represented five tribes: Mohawk, Onondaga, Cayuga, Oneida and Seneca and was federal in nature, operating under The Great Law of Peace, a doctrine of 117 codicils where individual tribes handled their own affairs but came together to solve issues of common importance. The founders were impressed by how the Iroquois legislated their affairs and shortly thereafter, they drafted the U.S. Constitution echoing the Great Law of Peace. Historians agree the Iroquois wielded a major influence in the writings of the U.S. Constitution.


Mohican Chief Hendrick Theyanoguin, Mayor Abraham Yates, Jr., and Benjamin Franklin at the Albany Conference, 1754. (Illustration by John Kahionhes Fadden)

Before the Congressional Congress, leaders of the Confederacy attended the Albany Congress in 1754, where Benjamin Franklin was impressed by the Great Law of Peace and wrote what’s known as the Albany Plan of Union. It advocated for the colonies to improve security and better defend themselves from foreign powers. In 1776, during the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress in Philadelphia invited the Iroquois to make an address, where they were well received by the patriots.


An Onondaga sachem giving John Hancock the Iroquois name Karanduawn (meaning “Great Tree”) at Independence Hall. (Illustration by John Kahionhes Fadden)

In 1988, Congress passed a resolution formally acknowledging the influence of the Iroquois Confederacy on the U.S. Constitution. It reads, "The confederation of the original 13 colonies into one republic was influenced by the political system developed by the Iroquois Confederacy, as were many of the democratic principles incorporated into the constitution itself.” In addition, the resolution stated, “the continuing government-to-government relationship between Indian tribes and the United States established in the Constitution,” which reaffirmed the legitimacy and sovereignty of Native nations and their governments.

Native Americans in Congress: A Historical Perspective

Senate

Picture Senator
(lifespan)
Tribal ancestry State Party Term start Term end Notes
Hiram Revels (1827–1901) Lumbee Mississippi Republican Feb. 23, 1870 March 4, 1871 Retired
Charles Curtis (1860–1936)[1] Kaw, Osage, Potawatomi Kansas Republican Jan. 29, 1907 March 4, 1928 Resigned after being elected Vice President
Robert Owen (1856–1947) Cherokee Oklahoma Democratic Dec. 11, 1907 March 4, 1925 Retired
Ben Nighthorse Campbell Northern Cheyenne Colorado Democratic (1993–1995) Jan. 3, 1993 Jan. 3, 2005 Retired

 

Senator Robert Owen

Senator Owen of Oklahoma was a member of the Cherokee Nation and an attorney. He taught orphaned children and represented the Five Civilized Tribes as a federal Indian agent before entering politics as a Progressive Democrat. His achievements helped pave the way for his election to the U.S. Senate in 1907, one being winning a court case on behalf of the Eastern Cherokees seeking compensation from the government for lands they lost during the Indian Removal Act.


Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, then-chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, speaks during an oversight hearing on tribal lobbying matters.

Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (Northern Cheyenne) was elected to the Colorado State Legislature as a Democrat in November 1982, where he served two terms. In 1986, he was elected to the US House of Representatives, where he served six years. In 1989, he authored the HR Bill 2668 to establish the National Museum of the American Indian. Nighthorse was the first Native American ever to chair the Indian Affairs Committee, and sponsored legislation settling Native American water rights and protecting Colorado’s wilderness areas. He also sponsored legislation creating the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site and the Black Canyon of Gunnison National Park.

House of Representatives

Picture Representative (lifespan) Tribal ancestry State Party Term start Term end Notes
Richard H. Cain (1825–1887) Cherokee South Carolina Republican March 4, 1873 March 4, 1875 Retired
March 4, 1877 March 4, 1879
John Mercer Langston (1829–1897) Pamunkey Virginia Republican Sep. 23, 1890 March 3, 1891 Lost Reelection
Charles Curtis (1860–1936) Kaw, Osage, Potawatomi Kansas Republican March 4, 1893 January 28, 1907 Resigned to become U.S. Senator from Kansas
Charles Carter (1868–1929) Chickasaw Oklahoma Democratic November 16, 1907 March 4, 1927 Lost renomination
William Hastings (1866–1938) Cherokee Oklahoma Democratic March 4, 1915 March 4, 1921 Lost reelection
March 4, 1923 January 3, 1935 Retired
Will Rogers Jr. (1911–1993) Cherokee California Democratic January 3, 1943 May 23, 1944 Resigned to join the U.S. Army
William Stigler (1891–1952) Choctaw Oklahoma Democratic March 28, 1944 August 21, 1952 Died in office
Ben Reifel (1906–1990) Lakota Sioux (Rosebud Sioux) South Dakota Republican January 3, 1961 January 3, 1971 Retired
Clem McSpadden (1925–2008) Cherokee Oklahoma Democratic January 3, 1973 January 3, 1975 Retired to run unsuccessfully for the nomination to the 1974 Oklahoma gubernatorial election
Ben Nighthorse Campbell (born 1933) Northern Cheyenne Colorado Democratic January 3, 1987 January 3, 1993 Retired to run successfully for the 1992 United States Senate election in Colorado
Brad Carson (born 1967) Cherokee Oklahoma Democratic January 3, 2001 January 3, 2005 Retired to run unsuccessfully for the 2004 United States Senate election in Oklahoma
Tom Cole (born 1949) Chickasaw Oklahoma Republican January 3, 2003 Incumbent Longest serving Native American in the House [2]
Markwayne Mullin (born 1977) Cherokee Oklahoma Republican January 3, 2013 Incumbent Has announced retirement to run for the 2022 United States Senate special election in Oklahoma
Sharice Davids (born 1980) Ho-Chunk Kansas Democratic January 3, 2019 Incumbent First LGBTQ Native American elected
Deb Haaland (born 1960) Laguna Pueblo New Mexico Democratic January 3, 2019 March 16, 2021 Resigned to become U.S. Secretary of the Interior.
Yvette Herrell (born 1964) Cherokee New Mexico Republican January 3, 2021 Incumbent


Rep. Ben Reifel

Ben Reifel, the son of a Brule Sioux Indian mother and a German-American father, was born in Parmalee, SD, on the Rosebud Reservation in 1906. There, he was an agricultural extension expert and administrator to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Reifel was a 5-term U.S. Congressman who was actively involved in advocating the interests of Indians during his tenure in Washington. He served in the Appropriations Committee and was instrumental in securing appropriations for the high school facilities at Sisseton and Mission, which benefited South Dakotan Indians immensely. He was also instrumental in securing funding for the EROS (Earth Resource Observation Satellite) Project for the Sioux Falls area. After his retirement, Reifel continued to work on behalf of Native communities and was Chairman of the American Indian National Bank. He was named Outstanding American Indian, Sheridan Indian Days, WY, and received the Indian Council Fire Achievement Award.


Rep. Charles Carter

Charles David Carter was an Oklahoman politician of Chickasaw and Cherokee descent, elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, and served from 1907 to 1927.

Prior to his 20-year tenure in Congress, Carter was auditor of the Chickasaw Nation and a member of the Chickasaw Council. He was also superintendent of schools of the Chickasaw Nation, and appointed mining trustee of Indian Territory by President William McKinley in November 1900. He’s most well-known for the significant roles he played in keeping Indian homesteads under the protection of the federal government.

Carter served as chairman of the Committee on Indian Affairs and was inducted into the Chickasaw Hall of Fame in 2006.

In the Administration


Vice President Charles Curtis (1929-1933)

Charles Curtis was a republican from Kansas who served as Senate Majority Leader and 31st Vice President of the United States under Herbert Hoover. He was the great-great-grandson of White Plume, a Kaw chief who aided the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1804. He was the first person of color to cross racial boundaries and become Vice President.


Curtis receives peace pipe from Chief Red Tomahawk, leader of the Sioux Nation and credited with having killed Sitting Bull. (Photo Credit: Library of Congress)


Former Rep. Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo), now serving as the Secretary of the Interior, poses for the history-making ceremonial swearing-in. (Photo Credit: Joshua Roberts / Reuters file)

Present Members of Congress

There are currently four Native American members in Congress. They are Tom Cole (Chickasaw), Sharice Davids (Ho-Chunk), MarkWayne Mullin (Cherokee) and Yvette Herrell (Cherokee).

Tom Cole (R-OK)

Tom Cole

Identified by Time Magazine as “one of the sharpest minds in the House,” Tom Cole, an enrolled member of the Chickasaw Nation, is serving his tenth term. Rep. Cole was appointed to the Rules Committee in 2013 and has remained on the distinguished panel since then. He has presided on the House Appropriations Committee as Vice Ranking Member and is Ranking Member and former Chairman of the Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies. Among his leadership positions, Rep. Cole is Co-Chair of the Native American Caucus and Deputy Whip for the Republic Conference. A member of the Air Force, Army and National Guard Caucuses, Cole’s an ardent supporter of a strong military and also an advocate for small businesses. He is known to be Capitol Hill’s foremost expert on issues related to Native Americans.

The National Congress of American Indians has recognized Cole’s distinguished service with the Congressional Leadership award on three different occasions, more than any Member of Congress. He was inducted into the Chickasaw Hall of Fame in 2004 and the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in 2017. His late mother, Helen, was also inducted into the Chickasaw Hall of Fame and served as a state representative, state senator and the Mayor of Moore, Oklahoma.


Rep. Tom Cole at a rally for the Violence Against Women Act. (Photo Credit: Kolby KickingWoman via Indian Country Today


Cole and Congresswoman Betty McCollum honoring Native American code talkers awarded the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor.

Sharice Davids (D-KS)

Rep. Sharice Davids, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, serves on the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and is Vice Chair of its Subcommittee on Aviation. Other committee assignments include Highways and Transit, Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management, Economic Growth, Tax and Capital Access and Innovation and Workforce Development. She is a member of the Congressional Native American Caucus and, in leadership, a Democratic Regional Whip for Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Oklahoma and Kansas.


Rep. Sharice Davids presiding over the House of Representatives.

Davids is committed to limiting the influence of special interest groups and to ensure all Americans have affordable, accessible health care. She advocates for employment opportunities for veterans and service members who incurred illness or injury while serving in the military, and works to help veterans transition their skills from service to business through legislation that examines barriers, including lack of access to credit. In addition, she voted to address the veteran suicide crisis and veterans experiencing homelessness.

Before being elected to Congress, Rep. Davids lived and worked on reservations where she fostered economic development opportunities, community programs and tribal initiatives.


Sharice raises a gift from Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes—an ornament in the shape of Wisconsin containing rocks quarried from the state. (Photo Credit: Hocak Worak)

MarkWayne Mullin (R-OK)

Rep. Mullin, an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation, was first elected to serve the people of Oklahoma’s Second Congressional District in November 2012. He is currently serving his fifth term in office. He sits on the House Energy and Commerce Committee and three subcommittees: Oversight and Investigations, Environment and Climate Change, and Health. He additionally serves on the House Energy Action Team and the non-partisan House Democracy Partnership, which creates alliances with nations across the globe to promote democracy.

Mullin is also the Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Intelligence, Modernization and Readiness and plays active roles on various Subcommittees—Defense Intelligence, Warfighter Support and Strategic Technologies and Advanced Research. Additionally, he holds the distinction of being Co-Chair of five Caucuses: Native American, Indian Health Service Task Force, Innovation, Men’s Health, Regulatory Review and is Co-Chair of the House Energy Action Team (HEAT).


Cherokee Nation Chief Bill John Baker wrapping a ceremonial blanket around the Congressman. (Photo Credit: Fort Smith Times Record)

Markwayne and his wife, Christie, founded multiple successful companies. Today, Mullin Plumbing is one of the largest service companies in the region and employs hundreds of people. As one of the few entrepreneurs in Congress, Mullin brings a business perspective into the national debate. He believes federal government must rein in wasteful spending, reform the tax code and end regulations making it harder for the private sector to compete in the global economy.


Mullin being visited by Miss Cherokee Ja Li Si Pittman

Yvette Herrell (R-NM)

Congresswoman Herrell is the first Native Republican woman to be elected to Congress and feels her Cherokee heritage has influenced her perspectives and decisions. She is an advocate for an ‘all of the above’ energy policy and is actively engaged in efforts to protect New Mexico’s oil and gas jobs. Representing a district that borders Mexico, Rep. Herrell is championing efforts to secure the southern border and allow border communities to have a voice in the immigration debate. She is an advocate for improving water rights, private property rights and the management of public lands with the intention to implement fiscally responsible policies, reduce wasteful government spending and balance the budget. She also believes transportation and infrastructure are critical components of our economy and supports the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, which awarded $9.2 billion to broadband companies to bring service to millions in rural communities.

The Congresswoman is a member of various Committees, including Natural Resources and Oversight and Reform. On Natural Resources, Herrell serves on the National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands Subcommittees and is Vice Ranking Member of the Energy and Minerals Development Subcommittee. On Oversight, she serves on both the Environment and Government Operations Subcommittees and is a member of the Congressional Western Caucus, the conservative House Freedom Caucus and Republican Study Committee.


Herrell with her parents, celebrating her victory on Election Night.

Before being elected, the Congresswoman served four terms in the New Mexico House of Representatives where she helped found the Article V Caucus to restore federalism and curtail growth of the federal government. Prior to entering public service, she owned and operated several successful small businesses, including a heavy equipment operating company, an insurance adjusting company, a boarding kennel and a real estate business.


Herrell during her campaign on Independence Day.

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About the Iroquois Confederacy

The Iroquois Confederacy dates back several centuries, to when the Great Peacemaker founded it by uniting five nations: Mohawk, Onondaga, Cayuga, Oneida and Seneca. In 1722, the Tuscarora nation joined the Iroquois, also known as the Haudenosaunee. They were known during the colonial years to the French as the Iroquois League, and later as the Iroquois Confederacy. The English called them the Five (later Six) Nations. Today, each of the tribes who comprise the Confederacy administer their own affairs and have independent tribal councils.

The Six Nations Iroquois Cultural Center provides for the viewing of 3000-plus artifacts, and features story telling lectures, and a gift shop adorned with Mohawk baskets, beadwork, books, t-shirts, silver jewelry, and acrylic paintings.

About Artist David Parkins (Homepage Image)

David Alan Parkins is a British cartoonist and illustrator who has worked for D.C. Thomson, publisher of The Beano and The Dandy. After the Beano's 60th birthday celebrations in 1998, Parkins took over illustrating the comic's long-running character "Dennis the Menace". In freelance, he’s worked on postcards, textbooks, newspapers, magazines, comics, and illustrated over fifty children's books. The artist has additionally drawn political cartoons for The Guardian, The Observer, The Sunday Times, the Times Higher Education Supplement, The Economist, the Literary Review of Canada, and Nature. In 2013, Mr. Parkins became an editorial cartoonist for The Globe and Mail.