At the turn of the nineteenth century, the government of the United States embraced the "civilization" of Native Americans as a central goal of national Indian policy. With the help of philanthropists and religious organizations, federal officials sought to convince Native Americans to abandon their languages, religions, and social practices and to assimilate into the new republic. This campaign, its architects hoped, would achieve the bloodless elimination of indigenous peoples and allow the steady expansion of the United States. As Native Americans assimilated, the United States would absorb tribal territories, replacing Indian nations with settler communities. Some Native Americans accepted elements of the civilization campaign, but few proved eager to cede their homelands and disappear. White settlers, meanwhile, demanded more territory than Indians were willing to sell and rejected the idea of incorporating nonwhites into [End Page 324] the republic. This apparent failure of the civilization campaign encouraged American leaders to adopt more forceful and coercive methods of territorial expansion. In the 1820s, the United States turned to ethnic cleansing, in the form of the removal policy, as its preferred approach to Indian affairs.
In her new book, Dawn Peterson identifies the white household as a crucial location for these debates over race, land, and nation. She examines the antebellum practice of placing Native children with white families, arguing that adoption formed a significant dimension of the assimilation campaign. Peterson describes approximately a dozen specific cases in which young Native Americans joined the households of white elites, usually for the purpose of education. White men became temporary guardians of Indian youths, who learned the social norms and economic practices of the United States through immersion in non-Indian communities. These adoptions, Peterson suggests, provided a test of the broader civilization policy. If individual Indians could conform to the standards of white homes, then perhaps Native Americans, in general, would prove capable of joining the "national family." Native Americans consented to these arrangements, but seldom with the goal of assimilation. Rather, they hoped that the education provided through temporary adoption would help their children and tribal communities adapt to a world increasingly dominated by the United States. Some former adoptees became significant tribal diplomats and political leaders, using their knowledge of the United States to resist American expansion and navigate the dangerous politics of antebellum Indian affairs.
Most of Peterson's work focuses on the Southeast, where adoption supported the emergence of an economic and political elite among the Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Cherokee. In each of these Indian nations, a small number of families sent their sons to live in white slaveholding households. Upon their return, these young men helped to cultivate chattel slavery, plantation agriculture, and more patriarchal forms of kinship among their own peoples. These men also contributed to the development of new political practices that helped the southeastern nations defend their territories and independence. Adoption, in other words, became a means of gaining new forms of personal and tribal power. In the book's strongest sections, Peterson uses the stories of particular adoptees to reveal the complexity of southeastern Indians' relationships with the culture of the region's white slaveholding elite.
Peterson's key example is the Choctaw James McDonald, who appears throughout the work. In 1813, McDonald's mother sent him from his Choctaw community in Mississippi to Baltimore to attend a school run [End Page 325] by Quakers, who were early supporters of Indian education. From there, he entered the household of Thomas L. McKenney, who ran the federal Office of Indian Trade and served as the nation's first commissioner of Indian Affairs. McKenney was one of the chief proponents of the civilization campaign, and he found in his Choctaw ward proof of the policy's wisdom. McKenney eventually arranged for McDonald to study law with John McLean, an Ohio congressman and jurist. McDonald, however, did not remain in non-Indian America. Instead, he returned to Mississippi, where he became an influential tribal diplomat as the Choctaw labored to fend off growing demands for...