Curtis Embraced His Native Heritage
Charles Curtis did not shy away from his Native heritage during his political career. Writers of the time noted that he often referenced his rise from “Kaw tepee to Capitol.” He decorated the vice president’s office with Native memorabilia and sometimes posed for pictures wearing native headdresses. During public addresses, Curtis enjoyed telling the audience a favorite quip that he was “one eight Kaw and one hundred percent Republican.” He spoke openly to the press of his childhood spent on reservation lands and working as a jockey where he earned the nickname “The Indian Boy.”
Curtis’ Native roots ran deep. He was the great-great-grandson, on his mother’s side, of the Kaw chieftain White Plume, who was famous for offering assistance to Lewis and Clark on their expedition. He spoke Kaw fluently and spent much of his childhood playing with Native children on the tribe’s land. He even survived raiding parties of nomadic Cheyenne people on his land, once famously making a trip on foot to Topeka to warn the governor of the attacks. It was this attack that led his white grandparents to decide that Curtis needed to be raised in a more “civilized” atmosphere, at which point they moved him to Topeka rather than allowing him to return to his mother’s people.
While living with his paternal grandparents, Curtis began work as a jockey. He had learned to ride ponies bareback on the reservation and was an able jockey despite being a rather stocky young man. However, his grandparents had higher hopes for him than jockeying and encouraged him to attend school. After his paternal grandfather’s death, in 1873, Curtis briefly left his paternal grandmother to seek out his mother’s parents, who were traveling from the Kaw nation in Kansas to the Indian territory in Oklahoma. His maternal grandmother agreed with his paternal one, and also encouraged the young Curtis to go back to Topeka and seek an education. Curtis would later recount, “No man or boy ever received better advice, it was the turning point in my life.”
At this point, Curtis’ life becomes a classic American story of hard work and determination. After retiring from jockeying at his grandmother’s demand, Curtis completed high school. He then put himself through law training by working as a janitor at a law firm and driving a hack cart at night. When lacking for passenger fares, Curtis would reportedly sit parked under a street lamp reading his law books. He was admitted to the bar at only 21. However, despite appearing as rags to riches story, Curtis actually owned a fair amount of land in the horrifyingly named “Half-breed plots” set aside for Natives who married into white families.
After his admittance to the bar, Curtis established a law practice and engaged in criminal law practice. He also began dabbling in real estate, selling lots and building houses. He also showed an interest in politics early on, participating as a torchbearer in a parade for presidential candidate James Garfield. In 1884, Curtis won his first election to a public office, at only 24 years of age. The popular and well-liked “Indian Jockey,” as Kansans called him, was elected as the Shawnee County attorney, which became a stepping stone for a decades-long and illustrious political career.