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  • Working on the Domestic FrontierAmerican Indian Domestic Servants in White Women's Households in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1920–1940
  • Margaret D. Jacobs (bio)

In 1934, "Opal," a young Pomo Indian woman who worked as a domestic servant in the San Francisco Bay Area, wrote in exasperation to the Bureau of Indian Affairs outing matron who had placed her in employment with Mrs. L. N. David of Berkeley: "Mrs. . . . David owes me ten dollars and she won't pay me for it. She accuses me of taking things which I didn't do. Do you remember when I left last July you told me to tell you if I didn't receive my pay to tell you. Well I didn't receive it and besides she accused the girl before me . . . of the same thing. I think it's just a stunt to get out of paying me. . . . I wrote several letters to her, but finally gave it up as hopeless. She only paid me twelve a month." Opal also lamented that when Mrs. David "did let me go to Oakland for the dances she always wanted me to go up to the house to mow the land and kill fleas. The house was just infested with them. That is a terrible job by itself. That meant scrubbing all the ten rooms. She didn't give me a moment's rest, so I think it's terrible that she doesn't want to pay me. Will you please try and make her give me the $10." Opal added in a postscript, "I need the money terribly and I earned it, more than earned it so please make her pay me."1

On the face of it, Opal's predicament did not differ significantly from that of other domestic servants in the United States in the early years of the twentieth century. Like Opal, most were female, impoverished, and racially classified as nonwhite, and they had few options for employment other than working as domestic servants.2 Many other domestic servants also suffered from the same kinds of indignities and toiled for the same low wages as Opal. Moreover, the relationship between employer and servant within the household has always been riven with inequalities that have divided women by class and often by race.3 This is not a new story.

However, household employment for Opal and other young Indian women did differ from that of other domestic servants in several key ways. First, Opal had not journeyed across the Atlantic or Pacific or trudged across a national [End Page 165] border in search of wage labor; nor had she been freed from human bondage only to be enlisted into the lowest rungs of the American economy. Instead it was the colonization of her land and the subsequent federal Indian policy of assimilation that drove her and other young Indian women into domestic service.

Second, employment of young Indian women by white families became more than a private labor transaction between employer and employee; the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) envisioned such employment as a central component of its assimilation policy. From 1880 up to the 1930s, as part of this policy, the BIA had removed thousands of Indian children to boarding schools. Many of the schools developed what came to be called "outing" programs, ostensibly to aid in the children's assimilation, which placed the children for part of each day and usually for entire summers with local families. Boys were usually set to work doing farm labor, while girls were to be employed in domestic service within the home. Even while in school, much of the education Indian children received revolved around training them for such menial positions, a process officials often characterized as making them "useful."4 Enlisting white women employers in the project of "uplifting" and "civilizing" young Indian women made white women's households more than private homes or workplaces; they became domestic frontiers where colonial relationships continued to play themselves out. As in other colonies around the world, this intimate setting became a significant site for the reproduction and performance of colonial relationships.5

Third, the figure of the outing matron—an agent...


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pp. 165-199
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