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  • Special Issue Introduction:The Politics of History and the History of Politics
  • Laura Briggs and Karen Dubinsky

This issue of American Indian Quarterly brings together a conversation that the participants-ably organized by Professor Margaret Jacobs-began a year ago at the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women. In this age of transnational studies, here is a fine example of a much-discussed but rarely achieved project: an interdisciplinary and international examination of the massive extratribal adoption of Indigenous and aboriginal children by white families across a number of former British settler-colonies: Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States. These are not easy stories to tell or to read. By looking across national boundaries, our collective understanding of this history is enriched. But the bigger the story becomes, the more the painful legacies are magnified. As Margaret D. Jacobs puts it here, this history involves "trauma, shame, and controversy."

Writing about the history of Native adoption is also political. These histories have different meanings across these diverse national contexts, but they are all controversial, with implications for legislation and national policy. Each of these articles takes up these contested histories and their uses, from what Canada called the "Sixties Scoop" to Sorry Day marches in Australia, culminating in a governmental apology, to efforts to blur and obscure this history in the United States. In New Zealand, the continued demographic and cultural prominence of Māori gives the public conversation a different quality, an engagement between Pākehā (Anglo) and Māori law, kinship, and understandings of adoption that is considerably more two-sided than the conversations elsewhere. In each context, though, the history of child removal remains to a significant degree an undigestible trauma, a memory of an event that [End Page 129] demands restitution but is more often met with indifference or a wish that people would just "get over it."

In the US context, the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) was fought for and (eventually) passed by activists who insisted that child removal on reservations and in cities was not particularly a response to individual parents who were not responsible or caring properly for their children but belonged to a history that included boarding schools and assaults on Native life and sovereignty. In the early and mid-1990s, when opponents of ICWA were trying (unsuccessfully) to get it overturned, they promoted a version of its history that even some historians picked up: they located it as derived from the statement of the National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW), which argued against the disruption of black families by placing their children in white families.1 As these activists had been successful in getting any policies that followed from this statement overturned in the 1990s with the Multi-ethnic Placement Act and the Inter-ethnic Placement Act (arguing that it came from an un-American tradition of racial separatism), attacking ICWA as flowing from the same stream seemed potentially like a strategy for getting it repealed as well. That the campaign for ICWA began in 1968, and the NABSW statement was not produced until 1972, seemed irrelevant to these efforts.2

The two articles in this issue that deal with the United States take on those politics, albeit in slightly different ways. In her article, Jacobs re-roots the history of Native adoption in the United States in the history of boarding schools and reservation policy. By examining the constellation of government policies, social work practices, and ideologies of gender, race, and class of the post-World War II era, Jacobs shows how nineteenth-century child rescue narratives were "modernized," brought up to date for the twentieth century. These kinds of stories continued to do work that separated mothers from their children during the second half of the twentieth century, and Jacobs shows us how Native adoption came out of the increased availability of Aid to Dependent Children for Indian unmarried mothers, which led states and social workers to believe they had a right and a duty to scrutinize these mothers and their children; tribal termination policy, which also gave states jurisdiction over Indian children where they had not before; and what Wilma Mankiller has...


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pp. 129-135
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