- The Women’s National Indian Association: A History ed. by Valerie Sherer Mathes
The post–Civil War years marked a turning point in federal Indian policy. Whereas some Americans called for the annihilation of the country’s indigenous people, others wanted “to replace policies of removal, confinement, and extermination with homes, Christianity, and even citizenship” (2). Leading this reform impulse was a group of Protestant middle-class white women who created the Women’s National Indian Association (wnia). In Valerie Sherer Mathes’s edited volume, nine historians evaluate the mixed legacy of this organization. Although it provided certain women with an outlet for political participation, the wnia promoted a strident policy of assimilation—one that had devastating consequences for Native communities.
Founded by Mary Lucinda Bonney and Amelia Stone Quinton in Philadelphia in 1879, the wnia started as a petition drive to pressure Congress to uphold Indian treaties. Auxiliary branches sprung up in the 1880s, although regional understandings of race and power (particularly in the South) limited the wnia’s work in certain areas. In 1882 the male-dominated Indian Rights Association took over the lobbying function of the wnia. To remain relevant, the women refocused on missionary work. Taking a “maternalist” approach, wnia members endeavored to spread “the values of white Christian society” by transforming Indian homes, families, and economies through projects such as the Home-Building and Loan Department and the field matron program (68). wnia members also participated in the annual Lake Mohonk conference on Indian reform and began publication of The Indian’s Friend in 1888. Although funding cuts and policy shifts eventually undercut the organization (it disbanded in 1951), in its heyday the wnia included ninety branch organizations in twenty-eight states and supported fifty-six mission stations on reservations.
Through appealing to Victorian “domestic ideology that made women into the moral caretakers of the nation,” the wnia claimed authority to enact social change at a time when women lacked full rights in the United States (72). Yet even as these women enhanced their own political life, they treated Indians as “children” who needed to be taught to become “civilized” adults. Ultimately, the wnia [End Page 154] supported destructive legislation such as the 1887 Dawes Act and federal Indian boarding schools. According to contributor Lori Jacobson, wnia members “remained largely untouched by a sense of responsibility for their role in the violent cultural genocide enforced by an assimilationist agenda” (281). Instead, through what Jacobson calls the “erotics of reform,” they imagined Indians as willing participants and counted as a moral victory every conversion from “savage” to “civilized,” no matter “the personal and cultural traumas such conversions could enact” (281).
As this volume shows, historians can no longer ignore the wnia since it offers one of the strongest examples of “women’s associational and maternalist political power in the nineteenth century” (212). Yet the volume also acknowledges its limitations. As Mathes points out, “one finds little Indian voice in the wnia literature, making it impossible to measure individual Indian’s responses to the efforts of these women reformers” (40). Future researchers, one hopes, will build upon this work to include indigenous perspectives.
University of Mississippi