- 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...