Monday, September 5, 2011

Cathleen D. Cahill's "Federal Fathers and Mothers"

Cathleen D. Cahill is assistant professor of history at the University of New Mexico.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Federal Fathers and Mothers: A Social History of the United States Indian Service, 1869-1933, and reported the following:
Opening to page 99 of my book plunges the reader into the complicated and conflicted world of federal Indian Service employees in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Falling in the middle of a chapter on the employment of married couples, the page details the way in which the superintendent’s wife became a much-maligned figure:
Julia DeCora (Winnebago/French), an Indian Service nurse, received a letter of support that used similar imagery; ‘It appears that the wife of the superintendent who has now left there, [s]ingled Miss DeCora out for slaughter….[I]f that Superintendent’s wife had remained at Tower much longer there would not have been any school left. She was a shame and a disgrace to the service…. It seems that the Superintendent was all right, but his wife was a hellion.’… By 1928 the Indian Service rules included a provision stating that bad behavior on the part of employees’ relatives was cause for termination.
The service was a world in which women and men, Natives and non-Natives, married and single people worked together intimately. Their official job was to promote the government’s policy of destroying Native cultures and assimilating Indian people into the U.S. citizenry. They labored on the reservations and in the boarding schools, often in isolation from white communities. These work environments often gave rise to jealousy and jostling for position as well as numerous tensions based on race, tribal affiliation, marital status, class, and parental concern for children. As I note later on the page:
The children of employees also became complicated figures in the world of the Indian Service, although less consistently so than the superintendents’ wives. In many cases, they were caught up in the same conflicts based on class, race, tribe, and authority that their parents faced. It seems as though some Native students took out their frustration on the children of their teachers. Memoirist Estelle Aubrey Brown described the sons of a fellow white employee, the matron Mrs. Lake, as ‘pitiful’ and remembered that, although they were ‘housed with a hundred boys, they had no playmates. If they ventured to join the games of the small Indian boys, they merely got bloody noses for their pains.’
While this page primarily focuses on the adversarial relationships, the social world of the Indian Service also became a site of friendship, admiration, and sometimes romance across those same lines of race, class, and tribal affiliation, which I explore in later chapters.

These interactions among the employees, as well as between the employees and the Native people among whom they worked, form the heart of my study and are well represented on page 99. But in order to understand the conditions under which the government developed such a unique workforce for the BIA, I framed their stories with a discussion of how administrators developed assimilation policies. I argue that they used a strategy of intimate colonialism—attempting to change the fundamental nature of familial and social systems through the regulation of individual relationships—to develop and staff assimilation programs. Without that frame, the government’s hiring of married couples comes off solely as nepotism instead of a key ideological strategy. Thus my book presents a new angle on the policy history of this period by infusing it with the stories of employees on the ground and demonstrating how their experiences shaped the reality of those policies.
Learn more about Federal Fathers and Mothers at the University of North Carolina Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue