Pueblo People Win the Right to Vote-1948

Trujillo, Miguel H.

New Mexico Indian Civil Rights Pioneer

By Gordon Bronitsky

It is rare that one individual can be singled out for playing a decisive role in history. In the struggle for civil rights, names like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks have earned honored places. Another such pioneer was Miguel H. Trujillo, an American Indian from Isleta Pueblo, New Mexico.

In 1924, an Act of Congress made citizens of all Indians. Nonetheless, the state of New Mexico continued to deny the right to vote in state elections to all Indians living on reservations. Denial was based on Article VII, Section 1 of the Constitution of New Mexico, enacted in 1912, which forbade suffrage to "Indians not taxed." On August 3, 1948, a special three-judge Federal court in Santa Fe ruled that New Mexico had discriminated against its Indians by restricting the vote on this basis. The individual most responsible for this decision was Miguel H. Trujillo, an Isleta Pueblo Indian resident at Laguna Pueblo. In order to assess the impact of this decision, it is necessary to look at the law, the times and the man.

In 1948, Miguel Trujillo was an ex-sergeant in the United States Marines and principal teacher at the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs Day School at Laguna Pueblo. He was also candidate for a master's degree at the University of New Mexico. On June 14, 1948, he had attempted to register to vote in Los Lunas and was refused this right by Eloy Garley, County Clerk and ex officio Recorder of Valencia County, Trujillo's county of legal residence, under the "Indians not taxed" provision. After some consideration, Trujillo and his attorneys, William J. Truswell of Albuquerque and Felix S. Cohen and James F. Curry of Washington, asked the Federal District Court in New Mexico for an injunction restraining the recorder.

Previous attempts to register Indians to vote had been unsuccessful. In Tapia v. Lucero (195 P. 2d 621), a class action was filed on July 12, 1948, by Tapia of Tesuque Pueblo against Margaret Lucero, the county clerk of Santa Fe County. The class action asked for a declaratory judgment that he and others were qualified voters. In this case, the court ruled that the action was insufficient to sustain a finding of disqualifying facts that the Indian was a member of tribe, lived in a tribal relationship with the tribe, that he was subject to and abided by tribal laws and taxes, and that he had paid no ad valorem taxes.

What made Miguel Trujillo decide to press the issue further? According to his daughter, Josephine Waconda (interview October 2, 1987), Miguel Trujillo initiated the legal action in order to bring equality to the Indian people. A member of the All Indian Pueblo Council for several years, he had tried unsuccessfully to get the Council to unite on the issue of suffrage, and decided to go ahead on his own.

Miguel Trujillo's life shows considerable drive and determination. His father died when Miguel was still quite young. As a result, his mother was left to raise the children alone. Miguel began attending school at the Albuquerque Indian School, which at that time had only ten grades. As he grew up, family and friends pressured him to quit school in order to support his mother and family. However, he felt that an education was essential and continued to attend school. In this, he was encouraged by Mrs. Isis Harrington, a teacher at the Albuquerque Indian School. As a result of her encouragement, after graduating from the Albuquerque Indian School, Miguel Trujillo went on to Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kansas. Here he supported himself in the summers by working in the beet fields of Kansas and Colorado. While at Haskell, he made the wrestling team and was selected as Captain of Haskell Cadet Corps Company C, finally graduating in 1925. Soon thereafter, he married Ruchanda Paisano of Laguna Pueblo, who was a member of the Haskell class of 1928. In the meantime, he began employment as a teacher with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, mainly at Laguna Pueblo.

His drive for education continued and he began taking classes at the University of New Mexico. There were no scholarships available for Indian students at that time and he was supporting his wife and their two children and his aged mother as well. Nonetheless, after some 15 years of dogged persistence, Trujillo finally received his B.A. just in time for the onset of World War II. As did many other Indians, Miguel Trujillo enlisted in the Marines, ultimately becoming a staff sergeant. After receiving an honorable discharge from the Marines at the end of the war, he returned to his family and his teaching post at Laguna, commuting regularly to Albuquerque to earn his M.A. on the GI bill.

What was it about the postwar situation in New Mexico that encouraged Indians to push for suffrage? As indicated earlier, previous attempts to end this discrimination had been discouraging and unsuccessful. Some Indians, in whose names court actions were filed, withdrew from legal actions, fearful of reprisal. In a state where the majority party held power by an 8,000 vote margin, not everyone favored enfranchisement of some 20,000 Indian voters (Christrnan 1948).

Nonetheless, times had begun to change. In 1947, the Report of the President's Committee on Civil Rights was published (The Report of the President's Committee on Civil Rights, 1947). The report condemned disenfranchisement of Indians in New Mexico and Arizona, noting that Indians were citizens and subject to both federal arid state taxes, except for lands in trust status. In its conclusions, the Committee recommended granting suffrage by the States of New Mexico and Arizona to their Indian citizens (ibid.: 160 161).

Attempts by Indians to gain the right to vote also attracted a great deal of public support because the plaintiffs in these cases in both Arizona and New Mexico were veterans, representative of the thousands of American Indians who had served in World War II (e.g. La Farge 1947). In the Trujillo case in particular, judge Orie Phillips took particular notice of this in handing down the decision, declaring,
It is perhaps not entirely pertinent to the question here, but we know how those New Mexico … Indians … have responded to the need of the country in time of war in a patriotic whole hearted way, both in furnishing manpower in the military forces and in the purchase of war bonds and patriotic contributions of that character … Why should they be deprived of their rights to vote now because they are favored by the federal government in exempting lands from taxation? (United States District Court for the District of New Mexico, #1350, transcript in possession of the author, pp. 6 7).
Other pressures were also being brought to bear, however. According to Dunbar (1948: 46), the Federal government was threatening to withdraw funds from states which denied Social Security to Indians. At the same time, the Cold War was beginning. It was becoming increasingly difficult for the United States to condemn Communist regimes for mistreatment of their citizens while American citizens were being denied equality on the basis of race and color.

With this background in mind, we can now begin to consider the actual court case. A three-judge court was appointed to rule on the injunction requested by Trujillo and his attorneys. The court was composed of Judges Phillips of Colorado and Bower Broaddus and Royce H. Savage of Oklahoma. As attorneys for the plaintiff, William Truswell, Felix Cohen and James Curry argued that the constitutional provision excluding "Indians not taxed" violated the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which states
the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
As part of their case, they noted that Miguel H. Trujillo paid a variety of taxes, as did other Indians, including income taxes, sales taxes, and excises taxes; and all taxes except ad valorem taxes on trust status lands. The attorneys argued that denial of the vote to Indians on these grounds violated the equal protection clause because the state of New Mexico permitted untaxed black and white citizens to vote. Further, they stated that Congress had ruled that the policy of declaring "Indians not taxed" was obsolete on precisely the grounds that Indians paid taxes and that on the basis of this decision, all New Mexico's Indians were counted in the 1940 Congressional apportionment, which resulted in an extra congressman for the state. Felix Cohen in particular argued that requiring that Indians pay an ad valorem tax in order to vote was discriminatory, since no other citizen was faced with the tax as a requirement for voting.

On August 3, Judge Phillips delivered an oral decision for the three-judge court (transcript in author's possession). The judges ruled that the New Mexico statute violated the Fifteenth Amendment. The court ruled (1) those portions of the New Mexico constitution and the enabling act which denied the right to vote to "Indians not taxed" were unconstitutional and void; (2) that the plaintiff and all citizens of Indian blood similarly situated had the right to be registered; and, finally, (3) that no Indian should be hereafter disqualified form voting on the ground that he is an "Indian not taxed."

Although Trujillo and his attorneys had requested only a temporary injunction, the court granted a permanent injunction for the expressed purpose of forcing the state to appeal immediately if it wished to appeal. The state, however, declined to appeal the decision. After 36 years of statehood, the state of New Mexico had been forced to grant its Indian citizens the right to vote in state and local elections. In 1953, the New Mexico legislature amended the Constitution of the New Mexico eliminating the three words that had been the cause for the suit, "Indians not taxed."

The court decision received much favorable attention from newspapers across the country, the Secretary of the Interior, and the National Congress of the American Indian (in Christman 1948: 10). Miguel Trujillo continued to serve at the Indian school at Laguna and raise his family. He later received a Meritorious Award with Medal and Life Time Pass to the National Parks from the Department of Interior for his "unselfish devotion to Public Service and exceptional interest in the welfare and advancement of Indian People" and was given an award of appreciation for his service to the Laguna Indian community by Albuquerque's Laguna colony.

Nonetheless, the name of Miguel H. Trujillo faded away for much of the Indian and general public; few today recall his name. Elsewhere in the United States the movement for equality and justice for all citizens gained momentum, changing forever the course of the country. Individuals like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King gained recognition for their part in this struggle. Why hasn't Miguel H. Trujillo achieved equal stature? Perhaps, as his daughter, Josephine Waconda said (interview, October 2, 1987), "his time came late." The late 1940s and early 1950s saw a major push for relocation and termination of Indians and Indian communities in an attempt to "bring them into the mainstream." Standing up for Indian rights was not popular within the Bureau of Indian Affairs. According to Josephine Waconda, Trujillo's defense of Indians and Indianness at meetings of the All Indian Pueblo Council and elsewhere led to pressure from superiors in the Bureau, ultimately resulting in the threat to transfer him to South Dakota. By this time, Trujillo's mother was in chronic poor health. Fearing the consequences of such a move, Trujillo compromised his outspoken defense of Indians. As a result, the family was transferred to Intermountain School in Brigham City, where he remained until he retired in 1959.

Away from New Mexico, his community at Laguna and the All Indian Pueblo Council, Trujillo continued to press for education, taking courses for a PhD at the University of California at Berkeley. Unfortunately, the press of family and his job and distance prevented him from ever attaining the doctorate. After retiring from the BIA, he returned to Laguna. Here he continued to work for Indians of New Mexico through the National Indian Council on Aging, Social Welfare Organization of New Mexico and the New Mexico Adult Education Association.

Although his time may have come late, trying to promote suffrage in the face of many obstacles, gaining an education at great personal sacrifice, always "fighting to get things done" (Josephine Waconda, interview, October 2, 1987), Miguel H. Trujillo's example is one that deserves to be remembered in this, the Bicentennial of the United States Constitution.


I want to thank Herman Agoyo for providing me with leads to the family of Miguel H. Trujillo and to Toby Grossman for discussing Indian law with me. However, I owe the greatest appreciation to Josephine Waconda, daughter of Miguel H. Trujillo, for taking the time to answer my questions, provide me with unpublished materials and suggest other sources of information regarding her father and his accomplishments. This paper was supported in part by a Planning Grant awarded to the author and Herman Agoyo of the All Indian Pueblo Council by the New Mexico Endowment for the Humanities.

Sources Used:

Chrisiman, IL. "Southwestern Indians Win the Vote." American Indian. 4(4) (1948): 6 10.

Dunbar,L. A Study of the Suffrage of the Arizona and New Mexico Indian. Unpublished MA thesis, Department of Government, University of New Mexico, 1948.

La Farge, Q. "They Were Good Enough for the Army." Harper's Magazine 195 (1947): 444 449.

The Report of the President's Committee on Civil Rights. To Secure These Rights. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1947.

Unpublished press release relating to case of Trujillo v. Garley; copy in author's possession from Josephine Waconda.

Unpublished transcript of Trujillo v. Garley; copy in author's possession from Josephine Waconda.

Unpublished resume of Miguel H. Trujillo; copy in author's possession from Josephine Waconda.

Eulogy for Miguel H. Trujillo

August 30, 1989

Miguel Trujillo is gone, yet there is so much to remember. There is the public man, who was born April 30, 1904, at Isleta Pueblo. His parents were Jose Trujillo and Juanita Jaramillo Trujillo. Jose died while Miguel was a young boy, so he and his brother Bartolo grew up together. A thirst for education was always a driving force in his life. After attending school at Isleta, he went on to the Albuquerque Indian School, Haskell Institute, and became one of the first Indians to graduate from the University of New Mexico. At Haskell he met Ruchanda Paisano from Laguna Pueblo. They soon married and moved to Laguna, where he served as a teacher at the BIA school, a position he held until 1955. He served the people of Laguna as a member of the tribal council and the All Indian Pueblo Council, accompanying tribal delegations to Washington, helping with his advice and counsel.

After service in the Marines during World War II, he returned to Laguna. Here he joined forces with Felix Cohen and brought suit against the state of New Mexico, winning the right to vote for the Indian people of New Mexico. Using the American legal system as his weapon, he fought to make democracy work for all citizens while proudly maintaining his Indian identity and strengths.

Miguel continued to press for education, taking courses for a PhD at the University of California at Berkeley. Unfortunately, the responsibilities of family and his job and distance prevented him from ever attaining the doctorate. After retiring from the BIA, he continued to work for the Indians of New Mexico through the National Indian Council on Aging, Social Welfare Organization of New Mexico and the New Mexico Adult Education Association.

But there was more to his life. We remember how he enjoyed making new friends. He had friends across the country from his days at Haskell and UNM and the Marines. They meant a great deal to him, and he was a proud member of American Legion Post 13, the Haskell Club and the Laguna Colony Club of Albuquerque. We remember how he loved to take pictures, and the fishing and hunting trips which were a high point of every year. The people at Isleta will remember him especially at Christmas, when he would take bags of fruit to his friends and sit and visit in their homes, drinking coffee and eating pies. Many of his students from Laguna and Intermountain School will remember the teacher who always encouraged them to learn and grow. His colleagues from the Laguna Tribal Council and the All Indian Pueblo council will remember a man who always had the courage of his convictions, urging them to work for Indian people and to vote.

He gave his children an inner strength which continues to shape their lives and the lives of their families. Miguel Trujillo is gone, but he lives on in the lives of all the people he touched his wife Ruchanda, his children Josephine Waconda and Michael Trujillo, and their families, his friends, his students, and Indian people all across New Mexico. His memory is a blessing.

The New Mexico Constitution says that “Indians not taxed may not vote,” although they possess every other qualification. We are unable to escape the conclusion that under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments; this constitutes discrimination on the ground of race. Any other citizen, regardless of race, in the State of New Mexico who has not paid one cent of tax of any kind or character, if he possesses the other qualifications, may vote. An Indian, and only an Indian, in order to meet the qualifications of a voter, must have paid a tax. How can you escape the conclusion that that makes a requirement with respect to an Indian as a qualification to exercise the elective franchise and does not make that requirement with respect to the member of any other race is beyond me? I just feel like the conclusion is inescapable.

The above statement comes from a three-judge panel in 1948 that granted American Indians the right to vote in New Mexico. One of the most important developments in American political history has been the gradual and often painfully slow extension of the right to vote. What makes this event more remarkable was that Pueblo people, as well as many other American Indians, volunteered to serve in World War I and World War II, only to come home and not have the right to participate in American democracy. Twenty-five thousand American Indians served in the armed forces during World War II and more than 550 of them were killed.

General sentiment among Indians during the 1940s was that if Indians voted, they would be giving up their status as tribal nations. There has always been some reluctance among American Indians to be members within the American system. Federal policy with regard to American Indians extends back to treaty relations in which both the United States and tribal nations negotiated on a nation-to-nation status. For American Indians historically it has been a constant struggle to maintain both their sovereign status and civil rights as American citizens. Not all political parties favored disenfranchisement of the 20,000 potential Indian voters in New Mexico. In 1947, the President’s Committee on Civil Rights condemned disenfranchisement of Indians in New Mexico and Arizona because Indians were citizens, subject to both federal and state taxes. The committee recommended that New Mexico and Arizona grant suffrage to their Indian citizens. This report put further pressure on states to grant American Indians the right to vote. During the 1940s a few states still prohibited Indians from voting due to the “not taxed” policy: Arizona, Maine, Mississippi, New Mexico and Washington.

Miguel Trujillo Sr. of Isleta Pueblo is most remembered for making it possible for the tribes of New Mexico to vote in state and national elections. On June 14, 1948 Trujillo attempted to register to vote in Los Lunas, near Isleta Pueblo, and was refused by the recorder of Valencia Country, Eloy Garley, under the “Indians not taxed” provision of the New Mexico Constitution. Enacted in 1912, the denial of suffrage was based on Article VII, Section 1 of the Constitution of New Mexico. Trujillo sued the state of New Mexico for the right to vote. On August 3, 1948, a federal court in Santa Fe ruled that New Mexico had discriminated against its Indians by restricting the vote on the basis, especially since Indians had paid all state and federal taxes except private property taxes on the reservations. Trujillo’s ensuing actions helped pave the way for Indians to vote in New Mexico.

Since gaining the right to vote in 1948, Indian voting turnout in New Mexico has been sporadic. It is only within the last two decades, that voting turnout has significantly changed. Due to increasing political clout, Pueblo people have strategically organized and turned out to vote in record numbers. Pueblo Indians credit the efforts of Miguel Trujillo for gaining the right to vote, a fundamental right of American democracy.

Sources Used:

C, Gordon. “Isleta’s Unsung Hero,” New Mexico Magazine. August 1989.

McCool, Daniel. “Indian Voting” in American Indian Policy in the Twentieth Century, edited by Vine Deloria Jr., University of Oklahoma Press, 1985.

Miguel H. Trujillo, Plaintiff vs. Eloy Garley, Defendant, U.S. District of Court of New Mexico, No. 1353.

Sando, Joe S. Pueblo Nations Eight Centuries of Pueblo Indian History. Clear Light Publishers, 1992.

—. Pueblo Profiles: Cultural Identity through Centuries of Change. Clear Light Publisher, 1998.

Further Reading:

Deloria, Jr., Vine, ed. American Indian Policy in the Twentieth Century. University of Oklahoma Press, 1985.

Deloria, Jr. Vine and David E. Wilkins. Tribes, Treaties, & Constitutional Tribulations. University of Texas Press, 1999.

Iverson, Peter.“We Are Still Here” American Indians in the Twentieth Century. Harlan Davidson, Inc., 1998.

Wilkins, David E. American Indian Politics and the American Political System. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2002.

Pueblo People win the Right to Vote 1948

Miguel Trujillo Sr. of Isleta Pueblo is most remembered for making it possible for the tribes of New Mexico to vote in state and national elections.