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  • Federal Fathers and Mothers: A Social History of the United States Indian Service, 1869–1933 by Cathleen D. Cahill
  • Rose Stremlau (bio)
Federal Fathers and Mothers: A Social History of the United States Indian Service, 1869–1933
by Cathleen D. Cahill
University of North Carolina Press , 2011

In Federal Fathers and Mothers, historian Cathleen D. Cahill puts a human face on the United States Indian Service, now known as the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). This book is not a defense of this bureaucracy that many Native people rightly consider to have had a negative impact on their communities, nor is her characterization of this federal agency during its assimilationist heyday of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in any way romantic or nostalgic. Rather, Cahill opens her book with an acknowledgment of the ambivalence that Indian (and many non-Indian) people have had about the BIA, and from there she deftly uses it to examine larger issues of governance and colonialism in the United States.

Building on the work of scholars like Margaret Jacobs, who have conceptualized government–Indian relations through the theoretical framework of “intimate colonialism,” Cahill constructs a collective biography of the Native and non-Native women and men who “translated policy into practice on the reservations and in the schools” (6) and whose behavior served to “meaningfully influence the success or failure of the agenda of policy makers” (258). In particular, she emphasizes the important—and often contested—roles of white women and Indian women and men in this work.

Cahill tells this story in nine chapters divided into three sections. She begins by explaining the origins of the Indian Service as the front line of assimilationist policy. Cahill emphasizes that this late nineteenth-century commitment of federal dollars and personnel to create programs for Indian “wards” was expressed through an intrusive, pervasive assault on Indian ways of life with the intention of replacing them with “civilized” marriages, families, and homes. In this personalized program, Indian Service employees were essential in making manifest often vague and poorly articulated policy goals. Much of this section will be familiar to those well read in the field, but Cahill does compare and contrast the movements to uplift Indians and that of freedmen and women. This context is interesting.

The second section comprises the largest part of the book, and it is the most engaging. In it, Cahill describes the range of experiences of Indian Service employees who were charged with enforcing federal policy. Many of these workers were single white women who rose to positions of authority. They did not just model domesticity; they feminized the agency and challenged its institutional culture to validate [End Page 92] their presence and work. Or at least some did. Other female federal agents experienced their jobs as confusing because they worked without clearly defined criteria and authority. Married couples—non-Indian and Indian—also constituted an important component of the Indian Service. Expected to embody an idealized family as examples to Indian people, their relationships were often fraught with tensions exacerbated by conflicting personal and professional demands, particularly concerning the welfare of their children.

Cahill also elaborates on the complex and varied experiences of the many Native people who worked for the Indian Service in a variety of capacities. Access to status and resources enabled many to help their own families, and as a whole, Indian people who advanced through the ranks challenged the racist ideology and policies that underlie the institution they served. They usually did so, however, as individuals. Solidarity between Indian employees from different tribes and between them and the communities they served was guaranteed, and differences in terms of employment and personality exacerbated these divisions. At the same time, those Indian employees seen as too “activist” in their own communities were transferred to others, but Cahill suggests this sometimes fostered intertribal solidarity. A career in the Indian Service, for most, necessitated a migratory lifestyle with frequent relocations to vastly different communities. Initially hired only to do manual and physical work, Indian people served in white-collar positions beginning in the 1890s, an innovation that was logical and seemingly inevitable but proved challenging to a civil...


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pp. 92-94
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