White Mother to a Dark Race: Settler Colonialism, Maternalism, and the Removal of Indigenous Children in the American West and Australia, 1880–1940
Margaret D. Jacobs has written a monumental comparative study of child removal policies in the American West and Australia between 1880 and 1940, zooming in on the cross-cultural relations between white women and American Indian women in the United States, as well as white women and Aboriginal women in Australia. A winner of several prestigious awards, including the Bancroft Prize, White Mother to a Dark Race engages not only scholars of American [End Page 127] Indian, indigenous, and Aboriginal studies but also scholars of empire, education, women’s studies, and comparative ethnic studies. Jacobs starts from a paradox she noticed in her preliminary archival research—that white women in the United States and Australia, while upholding the sanctity of motherhood, ultimately supported devastating policies that led to the removal of indigenous and Aboriginal children through Australian absorption policies and U.S. assimilation policies.
Jacobs begins her study by showing how the child removal policies in the United States and Australia had a similar goal: the dispossession of indigenous people of their ancestral lands. She shows how government officials, missionaries, and reformers alike broke “the affective bonds that tied indigenous children to their kin, community, culture, and homelands” (xxx). Furthermore, the very persistence of Indian people in the United States after the Civil War and of Aboriginal people in Australia after its federation in 1901 posed a threat to nation-building efforts. Invoking the gendered dimension of both the protection and assimilation policies in the two countries, Jacobs shows how white women reformers—often seeking to legitimize their public authority at the expense of indigenous women’s rights—colonized the intimate spaces of indigenous families. This invasion of Native intimacy also aimed at creating new loyalties (to new institutions etc.), making white women’s projects of “saving” the indigenous children complicit with the larger goals of settler colonialism. Jacobs, therefore, demonstrates throughout that white women’s maternalism not only transformed the indigenous body and home in which they intervened but was also complicit with the settler colonial project through what anthropologist Anne Stoler calls “intimacies of empire.” By developing personal relationships with indigenous and Aboriginal families in the United States and Australia—or through what Jacobs calls “intimate invasions” (227)—white women reformers were, therefore, agents of empire.
Tracing the parallel histories of indigenous child removal, the first two chapters examine the relation between gender and settler colonialism in the American West and Australia. Looking at the violent histories of European settlement of Australia and the United [End Page 128] States, Jacobs shows that settler colonialism and child removal ultimately pursued the same agenda: acquisition of land by dispossessing indigenous people. At the same time, the violence over the land extended to the violence over the intimate lives of indigenous people, who became “the Indian problem” in the United States and “the Aboriginal problem” in Australia for the settler colonial state. By carefully comparing the “protection” policies in Australia with the “assimilation policies” in the United States, Jacobs finds that officials in both countries used similar rhetoric to justify child removal, often invoking humanitarian reasons. Although the rationales of these policies were often similar in both countries, Jacobs claims that there is no conclusive evidence that the two governments were aware of each other’s policies. Unlike the U.S. model, focused primarily on cultural assimilation, the Australian model of “protecting” Aboriginal children promoted their “biological absorption” that aimed at “breeding out the color” (26). Australian girls were therefore the main target of absorption. If the American child removal policies targeted all Indian children, Australian officials, who were proponents of biological determinism and eugenics, insisted on Aboriginal child removal as “a means to breed the Aboriginal problem out of existence” (73). As we can see from Jacobs’s powerful archival evidence, racial ideologies informed the ways in which each country imagined itself at the beginning of the twentieth century; like the quota acts restricting nonwhite immigration to the United States, the “White Australia policy” (1901) also controlled its white citizenry. However, as Jacobs shows, Aboriginal Australians faced other exclusions such as the denial of citizenship until 1948 and exclusion from the census and from voting in general elections until 1968 (63). Furthermore, whereas many U.S. tribes had treaty rights and lived on reservations administered by the federal government, Aboriginal Australians had no such treaties and were at the mercy and under the jurisdiction of state laws.
In the next chapters Jacobs shows how white women reformers in both countries shared a “pathological view of indigenous women” (88), which led them to support the removal of indigenous children. Using the rhetoric of American middle-class motherhood, along [End Page 129] with evangelical Christian rhetoric, white women reformers in the United States often portrayed Indian women as “unfit mothers” (136). Jacobs offers several persuasive case studies where she looks at the work of Amelia Stone Quinton, Alice Cunningham Fletcher, and Estelle Reed in the United States, as well as Constance Cooke, Bessie Rischbieth, Edith Jones, and Mary Bennett in Australia. Comparing the work of women reformers in both countries, Jacobs finds that Australian women activists were often excluded from real influence in their state governments’ policymaking; they often objected not to official policies—unlike their American peers—but to the ways in which their male peers carried out such policies. At the heart of a chapter on practices of child removal, the historian brings to life myriad voices of indigenous parents opposing the removal of their children. She shows that both in Australia and the American West indigenous families “rarely sent their children to institutions voluntarily” (150). Invoking some heartbreaking scenes of separation— more common in Aboriginal oral histories and memoirs, where the separation was perceived to be permanent, than in American Indian accounts—Jacobs shows the toll this removal took on the parents and the children’s extended families. These scenes of removal, the historian argues, “cruelly traumatized indigenous people with methods that were akin to the forcible seizures of land” and previous removals (192). As Jacobs’s case studies show, American Indian and Aboriginal families soon learned that white women’s interest in their lives was not always genuine, especially when the “great white mothers” sought to replace the indigenous mothers.
Jacobs finds striking similarities between the American and Australian ways of initiating indigenous children into the rituals of their institutions (and she rightly refers to the children as “inmates”): “in both countries indigenous children [. . .] had to endure the same conditions: overcrowding, poor sanitation, an inadequate diet, a high incidence of disease, and often brutal and dehumanizing abuse” (229). In both countries the institutions of education prepared the “inmates” to become unskilled manual laborers and domestic servants (262). The colonization of children’s bodies through confinement, regimentation of the most basic daily routines, and the imposition [End Page 130] of what Jacobs calls a “new sensory regime” (where children’s bodily and sensory habits were slowly broken) aimed at changing indigenous children’s worldviews. Jacobs also finds similar coping strategies that the children used inside and outside these institutions. However, due to the imposed lack of contact with their families, Jacobs shows that many Aboriginal children grew up believing that their mothers had abandoned them. These children negotiated troubled identities; for some Aboriginal students who were removed from their families as babies, the institution run by white workers (who were often women) was the only home they knew. Ultimately, Jacobs argues, the students expressed mixed feelings about their white women teachers (299); although “white women often portrayed them as lacking voice and agency, indigenous children were not pawns [. . .] on the stage of maternalist drama” (327).
One of the many contributions this study makes is to look at how indigenous women—witnessing the maternalist tactics of their white middle-class peers as well as “assaults on indigenous gender systems”—started to articulate “an alternative maternalism,” aimed at restoring “the dignity of indigenous women, honoring indigenous mothers, and asserting indigenous women’s desires for and rights to the custody of their own children” (282). She considers the work of Indian women in Indian service (zooming in especially on the work of Angel DeCora) in the context of rising indigenous women’s activism. Jacobs suggests that like white women, Aboriginal and Indian women used “a politics of maternalism as a basis for their political activism.” At the same time, they emphasized the “right of indigenous women to raise their children as they saw fit within their own homes” (326). But Indian and Aboriginal girls were often placed in domestic service, where the “white mothers” could teach them (again) the virtues of white motherhood. The employment of indigenous girls as servants, however, tends to contradict white women’s mission of “uplifting” their protégées both in the United States and Australia; indigenous girls nonetheless aspired to different professions, often as they were “mothering” the children of white families employing them. And like their U.S. peers, “many Aboriginal servants resented the tight control that both the state [End Page 131] and their employers had over their wages, labor, and leisure” (350). Jacobs offers a useful case study of American Indian girls in outing programs in the San Francisco Bay area. Drawing on memoirs and oral histories by indigenous women in outing programs in the United States and Australia, Jacobs concludes that U.S. indigenous girls had “greater individual and sexual freedom” than their Aboriginal counterparts, who were more often abused by their employers and strictly controlled not only by white women reformers but also by the state. The examples of brutality, exploitation, and sexual abuse of these girls point to the failure of white women’s maternalist agenda.
Jacobs ends her study by looking at the growing opposition to indigenous child removal both in the United States and Australia, tracing some alliances white women formed with indigenous women to withstand further damage and comparing the political outcomes (or lack thereof) of these alliances. The example of Mary Bennett’s work in Australia and, especially, her staunch opposition to further Aboriginal child removal points to the changing tide of maternalist rhetoric. White women activists’ and school teachers’ testimonies against the removal of indigenous children were more vocal in the United States, Jacobs shows, where they sometimes charged the federal government with kidnapping and mistreating Indian children, often linking child removal to economic dispossession (403). In the United States this agitation against child removal and the failures of federal Indian policy led to further investigation and a harsh critique of child removal policies in the Merriam Report (1928). In Australia, Jacobs points out, none of white women’s or men’s campaigns against Aboriginal child removal had a clear impact on Australian state governments and their policies toward Aboriginal children. White women activists like Mary Bennett continued to condemn Australian colonial practices in public forums (like the British Commonwealth League in London), but their voices had little impact in changing policies, and the “assault on indigenous families” continued in Australia after the 1930s (421).
White Mother to a Dark Race draws on a wealth of archival materials, historical documents, oral histories, letters, interviews, and [End Page 132] autobiographies from both the United States and Australia. The images Jacobs uses throughout her story supplement visually the voice she gives to indigenous and Aboriginal children by bringing together their stories. The comparative method allows Jacobs to scrutinize closely American Indian policy and Australian Aboriginal policy through a critique of the settler colonial state. To readers of boarding school histories, the book is a useful model of comparative work (see also Michael Coleman’s recent excellent study, American Indians, the Irish, and Government Schooling [U of Nebraska P, 2007]) that opens up new possibilities for comparative work in United States and global indigenous studies.
Cristina Stanciu is an assistant professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she teaches courses in U.S. ethnic literatures, American Indian studies, and immigration studies. Her work has appeared and is forthcoming in AIQ, Wicazo-Sa Review, Portals, Intertexts, and Film and History. Her book manuscript looks at new immigrant and Indigenous responses to Americanization discourses and practices at the beginning of the twentieth century.