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White Mothers to a Dark Race, by Margaret Jacobs.

August 20, 2013

White Mothers to a Dark Race: Settler Colonialism, Maternalism, and the Removal of Indigenous Children in the American West and Australia, 1880-1940, by Margaret Jacobs.  University of Nebraska Press (2011), Paperback, 592 pages.


A fascinating history of the similarities and differences in the efforts in Australia and America to remove Indigenous children from their homes and place them in boarding schools.

Ever since I began reading about Australia, I have been interested in the ways its history resembles and diverges from that of my own country.  I was thrilled to find this book that attempts such comparisons, and especially one that is sensitive to the gendered issues involved.  I commend and recommend what Jacobs has done.

Jacob starts out by laying out some basic similarities between the two nations and their policies which may seem obvious but often get ignored.  Both were founded as “settler colonies.”  These were not colonies where outsiders came simply to rule or to extract resources and wealth.  They were meant to provide homes and livelihoods for Europeans and their descendents.  Since the land was not empty, it needed to be taken from the people already there.   Although forced schooling was said to be a kinder and gentler policy than war, the goal of removing people from the land remained the same. In addition, by the late nineteenth-century, both Australia and America were seeking to make places for themselves on the world scene.  Both sought to establish themselves as strong, modern, and white.  Eliminating Indigenous people was part of this process.

At the same time, white women from the upper classes in both countries were seeking ways to become involved in political processes.  In both places, women were espousing “maternal feminism,” claiming that because of their specific experiences as mothers, they were needed to “clean up” the public mistakes that men had made. They viewed themselves as the ones best suited to solve the “problems” which Native Americans and Indigenous Australians presented.  Defining themselves as “rescuers” they used force to disrupt other women’s homes and take away their children

While the actual practices for indigenous children were similar, Jacobs found differences as well.  In Australia the rhetoric supporting forced schooling was more strongly based on biological determinism.  Distinctions between “full breed” and “half breed” were important. Young women were advised to marry those as white or whiter than themselves so that they could “breed out the color.” With such beliefs, Australians were more intent on erasing aboriginal elements and assimilating children into white communities.  In America, education and a change of heart were seen as more important, and they were more concerned with “civilizing” Indians who returned to their original communities.  Australians took children as soon after birth as possible and sought to insure that they had no further contact with their homes or families.  Americans took school-age children, kept them for a few years and returned them to their families and communities.  The long-term affect of these differences in age at which children were taken, years in the school, and assess to parents can only be imagined.

A real strength of Jacob’s book is her account of what actually took place at the schools. At the level of daily life there was little difference between the two nations.  Arrival at the boarding schools in either country was a major cultural shock.  Previously I had seen the “before and after” photographs of children who had undergone the ritual of bathing, hair-cutting, and redressing.  Jacobs goes even further by discussing the meaning of such actions in the children’s culture and assessing the physical and emotional shock which they would have experienced.  Learning about the inadequate food, shelter, and teaching at the schools, we can guess that being sent to them was traumatic for many.

Jacobs is to be commended for trying to tease out conclusions about the thoughts and feelings of those involved in the forced schooling, but she has no way of establishing how typical statements were. Relatively few accounts were written by those who attended the schools, and most of those were written long afterward.  While many relate the pain of attending the schools, others are grateful that they were taken to them and educated.  Some adults remembered harsh treatment in the schools and homes, but others found themselves in the care of loving women whom they admired.  Reading Jacobs, it is hard to grasp any idea of the proportion of either viewpoint.  Statistics about the numbers or percentage of children in the schools are hard to come by in both countries and their views on what they experienced there is even harder to collect and analyze.  We can image the horrors of schools for the children, but we also need to remember that some of them were later grateful for that schooling as the path that led them out of poverty. Perhaps we must be content to recognize that even in the harsh conditions people acted differently and responded differently.

Jacobs’ own area of specialization is US women’s history, which gives her the expertise to analyze the role women played in supporting and staffing the schools.  She does an excellent job of describing the “maternal feminism” with which white women from the upper-classes sought to gain political power and “mother” all those in need. As part of the reform efforts that were active in the US around 1900, they managed to gain more status in the reforms of the Progressive era and the New Deal than in Australia, and tended to work through rather than against the government.  Her background in Women’s history also allows her to examine the physicality of the removal of the Indian children and the breakup of heir families.  On the other hand, her interest in women and girls leaves her with little to say about the boys in the schools.

One aspect of Australian Indigenous experience that was rare in America was the way in which the government supervised girls and young women who were sent out to work as domestic servants.  Jacobs gives examples of school girls in the San Francisco area working for families, but San Francisco has never been very representative of the United States as a whole.  In most of the USA,  Indian girls were taught housekeeping skills primarily in order to return to their reservations and make others “civilized.”  The US government did not supervise them, much less collect their meager pay and take their children away.  Here, especially during the first half of the twentieth-century, the overwhelming majority of domestic servants were African-American women, usually wives and mothers rather than young girls.

Jacobs looks at the schools in both countries between 1880s to 1940, but she does not consider differences within that span of years.  From my somewhat impressionistic reading of her book, I sense that in America the boarding school movement flourished in the earlier years, and in Australia more boarding schools operated into the next century.  I would be curious about more exact dating.  If my hunch is correct, fewer American individuals who attended the schools would still be living when attention turned to their problems.  In fact, as Jacobs shows, in the United States, the New Deal was becoming more sympathetic to retaining tribal customs and identities at the same time the schools were promoted in Australia.  By then some of the women who had played major roles in the boarding schools had become critical of them, partly because they were never adequately funded and partly because they realized the deeper problems of child removal.

Jacobs has obviously done a great amount of research in both Australia and the United States.  She have been able to connect many events that have previously been studied in isolation.  Her bibliography of relevant books and articles is extensive, enough to keep anyone interested in this topic busy.  But I still would like for her to have provided an even broader context for her analysis.  Jacobs is careful to say in her title that she has analyzed a specific time-span in the “American West.”  Despite the iconic image of “cowboys and Indians,” this time and place are only a small part of Native American history. Indigenous people had been killed and pushed westward ever since British colonization began in early 1600.  By the period which Jacob examines, they had effectively been removed from the eastern half of the country.  Only a remnant in the west continued to fight their restriction to small, defined reservations after 1900.   In addition to the Native Americans, the American West contained another distinct racial group, Hispanics.  These were the descendents of Spaniards and Africans, as well of the Indigenous peoples of Mexico and Central America.  Initially they worked as laborers and domestic servants, jobs that might have been taken by Indigenous Australians.  Today Hispanics are the USA’s fastest growing minority and are present in cities and rural communities throughout the country.

As I have begun to read about Indigenous Australians, I have observed that their issues seem to have garnered more national attention than those of Native Americans here.  Except for people on the cutting edge of the frontier, African-Americans have always overshadowed Indigenous people.  Until recent years, “race” has meant black and white.  Large numbers of African slaves were concentrated in a relatively small portion of the southeast where their labor was directly responsible for the great wealth and influence of their owners.  When they were freed, ways to continue to control them evolved in strictly discriminatory laws.  After World War I, they began to migrate to factory jobs in the cities in other parts of the nation,  jobs which no longer exist today.  I just read a blog by Aarti at Booklust reviewing a Native American history, and expressing her surprise on learning about them.  Growing up in Chicago,  she had hardly known they existed, “We don’t really think about them,” she stated.  Although Native American history has become an academic specialization, many Americans would agree with Aarti. 

After the Civil War and in the period covered by Jacobs, how to educate blacks was being hotly debated. The big question was whether or not they should only be taught to perform menial tasks, not about their possible assimilation.  Such debates are relevant for Jacob’s comparison with Australia, since they immediately predated the Indian removal policy. No one ever seems to have considered assimilating African Americans and inter-racial sex was an anathma.  In addition, one of first attempts to take Indian children away from their home communities involved enrolling the sons and daughters of Plains Indian chiefs in the school established for blacks in Hampton, Virginia.  Some of those sent to the school thought they were there simply as hostages to ensure their fathers would not start wars against the US army forces in their lands.

Neither the USA nor Australia can be proud of how we have treated the people indigenous to our lands.  The more we learn about what our ancestors did and why, the better we can start to begin to deal with the problems they left for our generation.

I highly recommend this book.  More people need to know the roots of the problems that our fellow citizens still face.


Kathrine Sklar. “The Historical Foundations of Women’s Power in the Creation of the American Welfare State, 1830-1930.” In Mothers of a New World, edited by Seth Koven and Soyna Michel. See my review and article summary.

Thomas King. The Inconvenient Indian:  A Curious Account of Native People in North America.  A new history by a highly respected Native American writer.  Reviewed by Aarti at Booklust. 

2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 21, 2013 2:00 pm

    Thanks for this. I had recognized the parallels, but I didn’t know much about the differences between the removal of children in the U.S. and Australia.

    You might be interested in Karen Russell’s short story “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves” which is a rather fantastical take on this issue that I thought was very effective.

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