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'Federal Fathers and Mothers' wins Labriola book award

April 24, 2012

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, one of the major concerns of the United States government was what to do about the “Indian problem."

The expanding American nation had taken land once occupied by the tribes, and forced the native peoples to live on reservations. But the government was supporting the tribes by giving them treaty-stipulated money for food and clothing in what seemed like a never-ending (and expensive) process.

So the Bureau of Indian Affairs, established in 1824 as the United States Indian Service, sought to bring them into the “modern” world by compelling them to accept the lifestyle of the white, middle-class American family – to live in houses, work the farm, and assimilate.

That goal required the services of many workers, male and female, white and native, single and married. These people, who were supposed to bring Indians into the mainstream, are the subject of Cathleen Cahill’s book “Federal Fathers and Mothers: A Social History of the U.S. Indian Service, 1869-1933," which has just been named winner of the 2011 Labriola Center American Indian National Book Award.

Cahill is an assistant professor of history at the University of New Mexico. She came to the Labriola Center, part of ASU Libraries, to accept her award and discuss her book.

In “’Federal Fathers and Mothers,” Cahill offers the first in-depth social history of the BIA during the height of its assimilation efforts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The book grew out of her doctoral dissertation at the University of Chicago, which in turn was linked to her master’s thesis.

Her interest in the employees of the BIA, the “federal fathers and mothers” to the Indians, was piqued when her godparents gave her, as a college graduation gift, a memoir of two women who worked as field matrons among the Indians in Northern California.

“It made me ask, ‘What’s going on?’” she said. “They were field matrons and their job was to go to native women’s houses to teach them how to cook and keep house. I did my master’s thesis on these women.”

Inspired to take a closer look at the BIA, Cahill began looking at the BIA’s annual reports from that era in 1996. “What was surprising,” she said, “was that there were lists of employees with an enormous amount of information about them, such as whether they were married or single, their salary, and so forth.”

At a conference, a scholar told her that the federal government kept personnel files at a location in St. Louis, so Cahill went to St. Louis and submitted a list of all the native women she knew had worked for the BIA.

“They found 55,” she said. “In their files were letters from them saying why they wanted the job, complaints about their supervisors, lists of books they were reading.”

Cahill wondered why so many white women are attracted to the BIA. “For a certain number, it was an adventure. Some equated it with a mission. Their parents wouldn’t let them go to China so they went to the reservation. They wanted a job and adventure, somewhere where it was warm.”

Cahill also found six cases of intermarriage between white women and native men. “I was caught up in their stories,” she said. “This was a time when interracial marriage was taboo.”

In one case, in 1888, the news of the marriage was splashed all over the newspapers and the bride was “mortified and frustrated at what was happening,” Cahill said.

Corabelle Fellows married Samuel Campbell, a Sioux, and, Cahill wrote, “editors seized on the titillating sensationalism of the symbolic disparity between the highest level of civilization, represented by a native-born white woman, and savagery, represented by a Native man.”

In the late 1800s, government officials believed that they could “solve the Indian problem” in one generation by assigning reservation lands to individual families and educating the children – and by teaching the Indians how to live like white middle-class farmers.

“When the administrators talked about assimilation it was all or nothing,” Cahill said. Paramount was making sure each Indian family had a home (not a wigwam, for example). To illustrate how little the government officials knew about the Indians, Cahill describes an incident where Friends of the Indian, who had gathered at a conference, asked the Rev. Thomas Riggs, Indian agent for the Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota, with “probing questions about the details of Dakota family life.”

They wanted to know, for example, if the Indians used soap, towels and wash basins; if the Indians burned their houses after the death of any person; if the Indians used knives, forks and plates; and whether the Indians conducted sun dances.

“These questions demonstrated just how fundamental the home was to the project of Indian assimilation,” Cahill wrote.

To help push the Indians to assimilation, “school employees were supposed to have an emotional relationship with the children. They were trying to break the children’s relationships with their families,” Cahill said.

“This was a way to solve the ‘Indian problem’ so there would be no more treaty obligations or reservation upkeep.”

“Federal Fathers and Mothers” is the fourth book to win the Labriola Center National Book Award. Previous winners and their books are Daniel Cobb, 2008, "Native Activism in Cold War America: The Struggle for Sovereignty";

Paul Rosier, 2009, "Serving Their Country: American Indian Politics and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century”; and Malinda Lowery, 2010, for "Lumbee Indians in the Jim Crow South: Race, Identity, and the Making of a Nation."

Books submitted for consideration for the Labriola Center American Indian National Book Award cross multiple disciplines or fields of study, are relevant to contemporary North American Indian communities, and focus on modern tribal studies, modern biographies, tribal governments or federal Indian policy.

The Labriola National American Indian Data Center, dedicated in 1993, is one of the only repositories within a public university library devoted to American Indian collections. The Labriola Center holds both primary and secondary sources on American Indians across North America.

The center's primary purpose is to promote a better understanding of American Indian language, culture, social, political and economic issues. The Labriola National American Indian Data Center has been endowed by Frank and Mary Labriola, whose wish has been that “the Labriola Center be a source of education and pride for all Native Americans.”