Estelle Reel, the US Superintendent of Indian Schools between 1898 and 1910, believed, in the words of scholar Margaret D. Jacobs, that it was her “maternalistic duty to rescue indigenous children from what she considered a savage background to raise them instead in a ‘civilized’ environment.” Reel, who publicized herself in the third person as the “Big White Squaw from Washington,” was not alone in her advocacy and practices.
“White women, primarily as reformers, but also as teachers, and administrators, were integrally involved in promoting, carrying out, and sometimes challenging the removal of American Indian children to boarding schools. They also contributed to the racialized and gendered representations of Indian peoples that made such politics possible.”
Jacobs argues that women agents of colonial control in the American West should be thought of in the context of the larger global history of gender and settler colonialism. She compares the American West and Australia, another place where “white women reformers believed it their special province to ‘save’ indigenous children by removing them from their families.”
“Colonial officials and settlers in the American West and Australia not only appropriated the land, labor, and resources of indigenous inhabitants, but also sought to dispossess them of their children.” Jacobs calls this an “invasion into the most intimate spaces and relationships of indigenous people’s lives.”
On opposite shores of the Pacific, these policies were justified and carried out with “a common racial discourse.” It resulted in the “systematic and wholesale separation of indigenous children from their families and communities.”
The logic of territorial control necessitated assimilation, replacement, and/or elimination of native society. Though there is “little evidence of direct influence of one country upon the other,” the US and Australia shared a similar settler colonial mindset. This was shared within Anglo-American women’s internationalism, via such venues as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), and missionary societies.
“Unlike the more masculine terrains of colonialism, removal and institutionalization of indigenous children was largely a feminine domain, defined primarily around mothering.” Motherhood, specifically white motherhood, became the basis of political action by middle- and upper-class white Protestant women. Jacobs writes that “many white women embraced the opportunity to participate in the colonial project” as a way of “overcoming their own marginalized status.” Estelle Reel, for example, was the first woman appointed to a federal office that required U.S. Senate confirmation—a milestone in women’s history.
It may seem contradictory that women who argued that motherhood was sacred and the bond between mother and child was holy—fundamental aspects of the maternalism espoused by white women reformers—also argued for the necessity of taking some children from their mothers. They thought they were “rescuing” the Indigenous children from unfit Indigenous mothers. “Who will carry the light to these dark sisters?” asked the Women’s National Indian Association (WNIA), an organization formed by white women in 1879.
Jacobs notes that “only a very small number of white women broke away from their maternalist sisters to become outspoken critics of Indigenous child removal and to connect it to other colonial practices.”
Novelist Constance Goddard DuBois was one. A member of the Connecticut Indian Association, a branch of the WNIA, she condemned the removals: “We have robbed the Indians, persistently and systematically, under process of law, and without law, but never has there been such a bitter robbery as this.”