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A Generation Removed: The Fostering and Adoption of Indian Children in the Post-War World, by Margaret Jacobs.

September 14, 2014

A Generation Removed: The Fostering and Adoption of Indian Children in the Post-War World, by Margaret Jacobs.  University of Nebraska Press (2014), Hardcover, 400 pages.

An important history of Indigenous children removed from their families in the settler nations of the United States, Canada and Australia after World War II, when governments turned their responsibility for Indigenous children over to private adoptive parents. Jacob‘s new book contributes to our understanding of each of these societies and of shifting conceptions of diversity and government responsibility.

Margaret Jacobs’ White Mothers to a Darker Race, is a fine history of programs in both Australia and the United Stats countries used to weaken Indigenous hold on land and power by removing children from their families and placing them in special schools. (See review) That program was designed to weaken tribal cultures and peaked around 1900. Until I read her new book, however, I had no idea that a similar program after World War II caused the removal and adoption by private families of large numbers of additional Indigenous children in several nations.  A Generation Removed brings that story down into the 1970s, filling an important gap in the narrative of Indigenous history.

The initial reasoning behind the removal of Indigenous children from their families was to isolate them in boarding schools where they would be assimilated into the cultures of the settlers who had taken over their lands. Forbidding children to be raised in their own traditions would speed the destruction of their people, a destruction that many believed was “inevitable.” After 1900, however, the wide-spread failure of the boarding schools was all too evident in the United States. During the Great Depression in the 1930s, some schools closed while others continued as native people voluntarily enrolled their children in the hope they would have food and shelter. Conditions in the schools did not merit such trust.

After World War II, the US government decided to end its support of Native Americans on reservations and in schools. The federal government was seeking to save money by rejecting their traditional responsibility for Native Americans. Many groups had their tribal certification removed. For a time in the 1950s, a core of women in the Bureau of Indian Affairs sought to strengthen Native American families with programs directed at helping them keep their children, but that idea was quickly pushed aside. The national government told the states that they were responsible for taking care of any Indians in need. Few states had the money or desire to do so. The national social programs supporting families, initiated in the New Deal for whites, were seldom available tor Indians.

In this context, American government officials instituted a new “solution” to the “Indian problem”: the fostering and adoption of Native American children into non-Indian families. Preferably, adoptive homes would be located far from their original families. In an early attempt at “privatization,” adoptive parents would conveniently absorb the cost of providing for Indian children instead of the government. Widespread propaganda encouraged white families to take in the children by demonizing traditional Indigenous patterns of child rearing. In a time of glorification of the nuclear family, horror stories were circulated about Indian mothers who were considered unfit because they had children out of wedlock. Even worse, children were frequently kidnapped and put out for adoption without any legal procedures.

Jacobs describes how the promotion of adopting Indian children in the 1950s and 1960s was embraced by many liberal Christian churches and families. People of good will heard the stories of the problems faced by Native Americans and wanted to help. The prevailing ideology stressed that America was a “melting pot,” into which all but African Americans could be absorbed. There was no thought that Indigenous traditions and communities were worth preserving, just that children could be “saved” by assimilation. Adoptive white parents honestly believed that the children would never face racial discrimination and were unprepared for the problems that emerged with their adolescence.

Starting at the local level, Native Americans fought back to regain control over what was happening to their children. Indigenous woman often lead attempts to end the permanent loss of children without their mothers’ informed consent. They also advocated that children who needed to be removed from birth parents be brought up by their extended family or others in their own communities. Their drive for “self-determination” allied them with more militant Native Americans. Because their communities had been weakened and excluded from federal assistance, they also sought help for tribes seeking to correct the economic and medical problems which were given as reasons to remove children. In the mid-1970s, Congress held extensive investigations of the abuse of power by police and social workers. Federal legislation was passed ensuring that tribes had some control over the fate of their children.

In addition to telling a critical piece of Indigenous history, Jacobs presents a devastating picture of American conformity in the 1950s and 1960s, and of a determination to eliminate deviation from the nuclear family ideal. I was growing up in a small southern town in those years and know all too well the accuracy of Jacobs’ observations. I was part of the “liberal Protestant community” that Jacobs describes. Like most Americans, if I thought about Indians at all, I assumed they were to be pitied and assimilated. None of us were capable of imaging anything more radical than assimilation for Native or African Americans.

Long chapters about Canada and Australia reveal similar stories of the removal of Indigenous children and their forced adoption.  Jacobs  includes extensive stories about what Indigenous people in all three countries suffered. She chides Americans for never acknowledging what they had done to Indian families, as both Canada and Australia have done. Between her more scholarly chapters, Jacobs tells stories about her own experiences deciding on and researching this topic and about those who contributed to her understanding of it. In doing so, she has found a successful way of balancing her personal account with the demands of academia.

The conceptual framework which Jacobs uses is the pattern of “settler societies.” Those seeking to settle follow the same basic pattern.  Because they wanted land from Indigenous people, they developed practices to get rid of those who owned that land by killing them, destroying their tribal communities, or assimilating them. I see the similarities she describes, but I have continued to have questions about the differences between what happened to Indigenous people in Australia and the United States.  Reading about Australian Indigenous people has also left me wondering about the differences between the treatment of Native Americans and Africa Americans in my own country.

Jacob’s focus on settler societies has given me insight into possible answers to my questions.  Almost two hundred years before they came to Australia, British settlers and other Europeans sought land from Native Americans.  The destruction or removal of those of who owned the land made sense to them.  As they began to grow profitable plants, however, like tobacco, rice, and later cotton, they also needed labor, more labor than was available from Native Americans.  Right from the first they brought in people indigenous to another part of the world.  Absolute control over the imported Africans, not their extinction, was what they needed.   Intense prejudice and mistreatment existed toward both groups of people of color, but what the Europeans wanted from each shaped their histories differently.  That attitude remains today. Through the 1950s and 1960s there were efforts by all sides for assimilation, but there was never any talk of resolving the African American problem by adoption.

I would like to explore these questions in more depth.  Does anyone have suggestions of authors or books that deal with these differences?

A Generation Removed is a significant book in the history of Indigenous treatment throughout settler societies in the recent past.  I hope it is widely read everywhere.

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